Peacekeepers in Kosovo crack down on KLA

But rebels' resentment could mean more trouble

August 15, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- The international peacekeeping force in Kosovo is clamping down hard on the Kosovo Liberation Army, seizing arms caches almost daily and confiscating documents and even cash in what some officials say is a determined effort to break the movement.

NATO and United Nations officials maintain that the tougher action is routine, part of an agreement signed almost seven weeks ago that aimed to dismantle the rebel operation within three months.

Until now, the NATO-led peacekeeping force has given the guerrillas a fairly wide berth. With the recent crackdown, the NATO force is demonstrating that it will no longer tolerate violations of the agreement and that it expects the rebels to turn over their weapons.

Members of the Kosovar army and the provisional government of Hashim Thaci, who is the political leader of the movement, are increasingly unhappy as many of their aspirations are brushed aside. Those include forming a kind of national guard and being incorporated within any Kosovo police force, as well as gaining the social respect they feel they have earned.

The guerrillas' leadership says that it will continue to cooperate with the NATO-led peacekeeping force and the U.N. mission, but warns that it may not be able to control its dissatisfied members.

The next six weeks will be a crucial test for cooperation between the peacekeepers and the guerrillas. If things go wrong, the peacekeepers may find themselves with an insurgent army turning against them, some foreign military observers warn.

"These problems could become bigger, more serious," said Bajram Kosumi, leader of the Parliamentary Party and minister of information in the provisional government. "Then we would have wide-scale chaos. I cannot even imagine what it would be like."

The peacekeepers insist that they are merely acting according to the agreement signed by their commander, Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson, in June. At that time, the chief of staff of the KLA, Gen. Agim Ceku, undertook to hand in all heavy weapons and 30 percent of small arms weapons by July 21.

But the guerrilla army failed to hand over the bulk of its weapons. Jackson gave them two extra days to comply, but has since conducted search-and-seizure operations.

A typical day last week saw the peacekeeping troops seize weapons in four or five different locations. On Thursday, they confiscated anti-tank grenade launchers, assault rifles, grenades, mines and mortar rounds in several places and intercepted a truck carrying several rifles and ammunition into Kosovo from Albania.

Peacekeeping troops also arrested Rexhep Selimi, the minister of public order in the provisional government, and seized money, weapons and ministry identification cards at his home. Selimi was forced to issue a statement a day later acknowledging the authority of the peacekeepers and the United Nations in the province and admitting that his ministry's identification cards were inappropriate.

Peacekeepers established authority, but the incident was humiliating for Selimi and may bode ill for future cooperation.

The peacekeeping force has been acting energetically to curb criminal activity in Kosovo and is quick to point out that many of the arms seized do not necessarily belong to the KLA or Serbian paramilitaries, but to criminal gangs or rogue elements that do not want to demobilize.

"Now more and more there is some kind of evidence to suggest there is a third actor," said Maj. Roland Lavoie, peacekeeping force spokesman. "The amount of money and material confiscated suggests a more criminal activity."

But it is the guerrilla movement that is taking the heat for the perceived noncompliance with NATO demands. Peacekeeping soldiers on the ground appear to have little sympathy for the guerrilla fighters. The atrocities committed by Serbian forces are no longer foremost in their minds. What preoccupies them now is the intimidation and revenge killings committed daily by ethnic Albanians.

"When you are a soldier on the ground, there is a natural evolution to find an opponent," a British military observer working with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe explained. "The soldiers are coming up against nastiness and see the Albanians as the bad ones."

That attitude is not lost on the guerrilla force and its sympathizers. "They are treating our war heroes like dogs," said Kosumi.

One foreign observer responsible for liaison with the KLA warns that leaving the former guerrillas out in the cold would invite trouble: "You need to hold them by the hand and walk them into civilian life."

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