KLA rebels battle to hold off Serbs in Kosovo ground war

Helped by airstrikes, guerrilla forces still lack heavy weaponry

War In Yugoslavia

May 23, 1999|By Jeffrey Fleishman | Jeffrey Fleishman,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

KOSHARE, Yugoslavia -- Mortars bursting around him, the Kosovo Liberation Army commander hurried his men below the cloud line, through thickets, over streams and across a field of wildflowers, where a butterfly landed on the bloodied nose of a dead Serbian soldier.

The commander, Prem Marashi, slipped an L&M cigarette between his lips and listened to the walkie-talkie static. His sunburned guerrillas cocked their Kalashnikovs, crouched in the weeds. The air exploded with bullets, then quieted as the young men stared at the body, its face blown away and hips blackened and twisted by a grenade blast.

Then, swinging their rifles forward, Marashi's unit was on the move again, past mortar scars that looked like huge paw prints on the hillside.

This is the war on the ground, inside Kosovo.

Beneath NATO's planes and cruise missiles, the fighting on the ground between KLA guerrillas and Serbian forces careens from mountaintop to valley, in its wake leaving the dead, the wounded and the frightened. NATO air raids are destroying Serbian artillery positions and emboldening the 10,000-strong rebel army as it advances from Albania's northern border deeper into Kosovo.

The KLA -- controlling a three-mile swath from the Albanian village of Padesh to the outpost of Kashare -- is punching a corridor toward the Kosovar village of Junik.

Guerrilla commanders say they are marching incrementally forward and expect to seize Junik by the end of the month. This, according to Western officials, would mark a turning point for a rebel movement that only weeks ago seemed powerless against superior Serbian forces.

The rebels' supply lines in Albania have been rejuvenated and encampments around Peshare are flush with ammunition and mortar shells. The KLA's biggest problems, however, are a lack of heavy weaponry and an inability to get arms to guerrilla units encircled by Yugoslav army divisions in central Kosovo. Increasingly, though, the rebels are coordinating with NATO air forces, calling in coordinates of Serbian positions on portable satellite phones.

"NATO airstrikes have really helped the KLA out," said Brian Hanson, an official with the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe. "NATO has kind of balanced the tables."

But NATO also makes blunders. Yesterday, alliance officials acknowledged that on Friday, NATO struck the KLA stronghold that had served as Marashi's base, mistaking the site for a Yugoslav position. One rebel soldier was reported killed and at least 15 others injured.

The mountainous border between Albania and Kosovo is the KLA's lifeline, where men on tractors brave mortar duels to haul munitions and recruits up winding, muddy roads. Tents are pitched along ravines. Arms smugglers peddle high-caliber machine guns from horseback. And rebels in camouflage uniforms and bulletproof vests follow the pace of fighting on shortwave radios.

The mood around the border is increasingly tense. KLA units nestled in Albania daily shell Serbian forces, which retaliate by attacking across the border. The Albanian army is moving tanks and artillery units into the mountains to fend off the Serbian incursions. Three U.S. Army officers stationed near the border are monitoring military movements and consulting with Albanian army officials about NATO strategy.

On Tuesday, Western officials said, several NATO military officers flew over in a helicopter, looking for possible base camp sites from which to launch a ground invasion or deploy NATO peacekeeping forces if Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic agreed to a cease-fire.

Throughout this shifting battle land are farmers plowing fields, shepherds with flocks and the brilliant flashes of NATO cluster bombs battering Serbian positions.

Late last week, in the KLA border camp at Padesh, Bashkim Belegu finished a coffee and headed for the battle lines. Once the owner of a pizza shop, Belegu is now one of 10,000 or so KLA guerrillas.

Pulling down his black cap over his shaved head, Belegu stepped over a horse that had been blown in two by a grenade. He pointed to a field softened and blemished by shellfire. He took a breath and crossed into Kosovo.

"Down there, below the clouds, is the town of Jakova and the most beautiful land in the world," he said. "You can smell it already. It smells different. Richer. This is what we are fighting for. The Serbs don't really love this land the way we do. That is why many Serb soldiers are now running away. They are deserting. NATO airstrikes scare them. They don't fight us with the same fierceness they once did."

Belegu made his way to Kashare camp, where a man who gave his name only as Bajram said, "I came to fight to get my family out of Kosovo." Like many KLA soldiers, Bajram left poverty-stricken Kosovo years ago, working as a construction laborer in Germany. "My parents are trapped in Drenica. I know the KLA doesn't have many arms, so I came here with a Kalashnikov to kill Serbs. I hate them."

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