Arm the KLA?

A growing chorus begins to ask whether it's time to arm Kosovar rebels.

Published April 1, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Thousands more ethnic Albanians trickled out of Kosovo Wednesday, on foot, in cars and in trains, telling tales of killing, looting and pogroms. While NATO is attempting to avoid civilian targets in Serbia, the Serbs don't seem to be taking such care in their campaign to "cleanse" Kosovo of ethnic Albanians. Well over 150,000 people have fled over the past four days. Even more worrisome is the plight of those who are not being allowed to leave. The talk of the killing that is going on in cities like the capital, Pristina, is chilling.

With no plans in Western capitals to send NATO ground troops into Kosovo, increasingly people inside and outside the province are talking about arming the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). "We need anti-tank weapons and ammunition, nothing else," a contact close to the KLA told me Wednesday night from Albania. He'd just spoken with his cousin, a woman currently in a prosperous neighborhood of fine blond stucco homes called Dragodan in the Kosovo capital. She told him the situation in Pristina was "Rwanda-like," that Serbian forces were killing many people, and going door-to-door in her neighborhood rounding up people.

"The international community must arm the KLA because of the carnage that is going on in Kosovo," the KLA source told me. "The Serbs do not respect the rule of law. If the KLA is armed quickly, it can protect civilians."

But arm-the-KLA rhetoric isn't coming just from KLA supporters in the Balkans. "People in Congress are starting to talk about arming the KLA," said one U.S. official in Washington who is familiar with U.S.-Kosovo policy. "But as a long-term policy -- not next week." He mentioned Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., as one lawmaker increasingly vocal in his support for the idea of at least a train-and-equip program for the KLA.

There are questions, of course, about supporting the KLA. Would it help alleviate the humanitarian crisis and slow down the killing of ethnic Albanian civilians? Or would it create a Taliban-like force in Kosovo that the international community would be unable to control in the future? At this moment, the KLA might be the best hope for protecting civilians threatened with killings by Serbian forces. Over time, a major degradation of Serbian military assets by NATO air forces, plus the ability of KLA fighters to defend themselves with anti-tank weapons, might allow them to defend territory. In the short term, they could save lives, although even supporting the rebels sufficiently to accomplish that goal would take time.

Some argue that if NATO doesn't arm the KLA, someone else will. As in Bosnia, some worry that Islamic fundamentalists will step in where the West is afraid to tread, and the KLA could wind up beholden to Iran, Afghanistan or Osama bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian millionaire blamed for the African embassy bombings and other terrorist attacks. But at the moment, NATO controls the skies over Yugoslavia, and it seems impossible that a non-NATO government would be able to enter airspace over Yugoslavia.

The debate probably won't be settled soon enough for KLA commanders, who are trying to hold ground against better-equipped Serbian troops and hoping for airdropped supplies much more quickly than Washington is likely to provide them. An international aid official here, who asked not to be identified, said his office had gotten a call from a satellite phone in Kosovo a few days ago. "We need airdrops of food, medical supplies and blankets," pleaded the Kosovar Albanian on the other end of the line. Who was it? Reportedly, "Remi," the 27-year-old commander of the KLA for the Llap region, in northeastern Kosovo.

The Kosovo Crisis Center reports that "Ceni," the KLA information officer in Llap, said Wednesday, "The KLA is resisting with all means the offensive by Serbian forces and trying to evacuate civilians. This latter task is becoming more difficult because virtually all settlements of the region are under attack; many have fled into mountainous areas."

Some 60,000 internally displaced people are in need of humanitarian assistance in Llap alone. Thousands of people are reported to be stranded in the town of Podujevo, which is under siege by Serbian forces.

While KLA commanders like Remi say the best bet for stopping this flood of killing lies in arming them, many in the U.S. human rights and foreign policy community are still hoping for NATO ground troops to go into Kosovo. Several senior U.S. foreign policy experts, including Morton Abramowitz, Frank Carlucci, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Helmut Sonnenfeldt and William Howard Taft IV, called for deployment of NATO ground troops to "end the genocide being carried out by Serbian forces" at a press conference in Washington Wednesday.

Though NATO officials say they are stepping up their air campaign against Yugoslavian military targets, bad weather and heavy cloud cover have prevented them from using some of the laser-guided missiles that would allow them to take out the Serbian forces currently threatening Kosovar Albanian civilians. NATO officials also worry that their forces face threats not just from Serbian military air-defense systems, but from Serbian civilians who have been armed with rocket-propelled grenades and other equipment that will make it dangerous for low-flying A-10 planes and Apache helicopters to target more dispersed Serbian military assets on the ground.

Though the stunning brutality of Serbian forces in Kosovo has helped keep the 19-nation NATO alliance united in support of continued airstrikes against Serbia, the airstrikes also drastically accelerated the pace of killing and displacements on the ground in Kosovo that they were intended to slow.

It is not clear that by the time NATO finishes decimating Serbian military targets that there will be much of Kosovo left at all, or many Kosovar Albanians still living there. Whole cities -- Pec, Prizren, parts of Pristina -- are being systematically "cleared" of Kosovars, according to statements by numerous refugees and human rights observers.

After turning around a trainload of Kosovar Albanians yesterday, the Macedonians let a train containing 2,000 refugees cross Wednesday afternoon, and another large group entered Wednesday morning. But a few kilometers east of the main border-crossing at Blace, the Macedonian military prevented a group of about 2,000 Kosovar Albanians walking from the town of Kacanik to enter the country, because it was not a legal crossing point. They also kicked out a humanitarian organization that was trying to provide medical relief to that group of displaced people.

Hashim Thaci, a leader of rebel ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, told
Germany's ZDF television that Serbs had created three concentration camps,
including one in a Pristina stadium, which, he said, was holding 100,000
people. German defense minister Rudolf Scharping told a news conference:
"We have serious reports that there are concentration camps like there
were in Bosnia."

Some 2,000 people from the southern Kosovo city of Urosevac (Ferizai in Albanian) made it to safety in Macedonia Wednesday afternoon. One 80-year-old blind man was led by his grandson on the four-hour walk. He sat cross-legged in the long line of Kosovars registering in a tent for refugee status in Macedonia. Another woman, whose passport showed her to be 96 years old, sat almost entirely covered by a head scarf. Refugees coming from Urosevac told me Wednesday that residents of the Dragodan neighborhood of Pristina had been rounded up in the last few days by the military, and while some were known to be staying in other parts of city, others were reported to have been killed.

Several of the refugees said Serbian police had destroyed their passport and identification papers before they reached Macedonia. NATO forces said destruction of Kosovar birth certificates, marriage licenses and other identity papers was being conducted systematically by Serbian forces to make it impossible for ethnic Albanians to return to the province after the conflict ends.

As NATO spokesman Jamie Shea told reporters in Brussels, "This attempt to rewrite history reminds me of George Orwell's '1984,' which I used to believe was fiction but which now seems to be happening in reality."

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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