How close can NATO get to the KLA?

The accidental bombing of a rebel compound reveals the West's uneasy relationship with indigenous anti-Serbian forces.


Laura Rozen
May 24, 1999 2:00PM (UTC)

NATO's accidental bombing of a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) compound in Kosara this weekend put a brief and probably unwelcome spotlight on the complex and uneasy relationship between the alliance of Western powers and the Kosovar Albanian rebels.

NATO spokesman Jamie Shea called the bombing an accident, and said NATO believed the command post was in the hands of the Yugoslav army. But U.S. officials who asked not to be identified say the KLA asked NATO to bomb the post weeks ago, but neglected to inform the alliance that it had taken over the compound 10 days before the bombing. The mistake was especially embarrassing because the change from Yugoslav to KLA control was known by reporters covering the conflict, if not by NATO. This latest intelligence breakdown came in the wake of NATO's mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade earlier this month, reportedly because the agency used old maps and had no one on its targeting team with on-the-ground knowledge of the city.

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Whatever the truth, the mistake underscored the limited extent of the communication and cooperation between NATO and the KLA, which provides the alliance with information about Yugoslav army movements within Kosovo and represents the only ground troops fighting within the province. KLA leaders are growing bolder in calling for more coordination between their movement and NATO, saying such cooperation could put decisive pressure on Slobodan Milosevic and hasten an end to the conflict.

"If we had a more cooperative relationship with NATO, we would have more success," said Pleurat Sediu, a KLA spokesman, reached by telephone at the KLAs headquarters in Tirana Albania. Even without extensive cooperation, Sediu says the KLA has had military success recently, especially in the central Kosovo region of Drenica, and in the Dukagjin region, along Kosovo's border with Macedonia and Albania. On Friday, according to Sediu, the KLA had a big success, taking over a major ammunition depot in Drenica, nearby the village of Donji Prekaz, after the KLA had defeated Serbian forces there.

In the past few days, KLA rebels also "have hit quite hard" in northern and northeastern Kosovo, Sediu says. He contends the pressure has led to many Serbian soldiers deserting. State Department officials say that more than 500 Serbian soldiers have fled Kosovo in the past week, but Serbian authorities say the hundreds returning to the southern Serbian city of Krusevac in recent days have completed their military service.

"What NATO aerial attacks have done," says Sediu, a bearded physician by training who has previously served as the KLA's spokesman in London, "is to destroy Serbian military command and control centers and communications, so that Serbian troops are isolated in small groups in different compounds." Without adequate communications or command instructions, the isolated Serbian units are "unable to move around as easily, or carry out attacks on KLA territories," Sediu says.

KLA leaders argue NATO should help them because they are currently the only ones protecting Kosovo Albanians from Serbian forces in the province. Serbian troops are holding Kosovo civilians as human shields near Serbian military targets, Sediu says, especially near the southwestern Kosovo city of Prizren. He says that pockets of Kosovo civilians have been trapped in parts of Kosovo for more than seven weeks without access to food, and face starvation.

KLA leaders have recently stepped up their calls for NATO to provide them with arms and training. "We have 35,000 KLA soldiers inside, men and women of fighting age, armed and fighting. The problem is a lack of weaponry," Sediu says.

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While the KLA has been able to finance the purchase of arms, and their transport to Albania, Sediu says the presence of some 40,000 Serbian soldiers and police makes it difficult for them to get the weapons to their various rebel commanders scattered throughout the province.

For one who has spent much of the past 14 months of conflict in Kosovo, it is strange to be able to openly telephone the KLA and conduct an interview, as if the rebel army were just another humanitarian aid organization operating in the region. Before NATO launched airstrikes, the KLA was a largely secretive, underground organization that showed ample evidence that it lacked central command and control of its various regional command posts. More than once, for instance, a KLA rebel in one part of Kosovo would take some Serbian soldiers or civilians hostage, while a KLA spokesman in another region would vehemently deny the KLA had anything to do with the missing people. Then later, he would be forced to retract his earlier statement.

Now, after NATO has spent 60 days trying to bomb from Kosovo the Serbian forces the KLA rebels have spent their whole career trying to defeat, the KLA is entirely out in the open. Its headquarters in Tirana holds press conferences and has an office full of English, French and German speakers available for interviews. KLA leaders openly discuss their strategies and ambitions with Western journalists. Its 29-year-old political leader, Hashim Thaci, has replaced the Kosovo Albanians' longtime pacifist political leader, Ibrahim Rugova, as the president of Kosovo's self-declared government. As one U.S. advisor to the Kosovar Albanians says, "The KLA runs the show."

But with growth come tensions. There are signs of a power struggle within the KLA, evident in recent leadership changes in the military wing. Professional military generals, with some experience fighting the Serbs in Croatia, are being recruited to lead the KLA.

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For instance, on April 30, Agim Ceku, a former Yugoslav National Army (JNA) officer of Kosovo Albanian descent who fought for Croatia against Serbia, was appointed the KLA's commander in chief. He replaced the 28-year-old Suleiman "The Sultan" Selimi, who had served as interim chief of the KLA.

The KLA is still factionalized, but a stable political leadership has remained, including Hashim Thaci (a former soccer player from Drenica who studied political science in Switzerland) and spokesman Jakup Krasniqi, a high school teacher from the central Kosovo region of Drenica who previously was in the local government run by Rugova's pacifist party.

But there are reports that some factions of the KLA are more willing than others to entertain a peace agreement that would give Kosovo something less than independence. More militant factions are resistant to any deal with NATO that doesn't include independence.

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While KLA commanders insist that the combination of NATO airstrikes and KLA ground attacks on Serbian forces are showing more success every day, military analysts in Albania are worried the conflict won't be over in time to avert a major humanitarian disaster for the nearly 1 million people displaced from Kosovo to date. A top NATO commander in Albania said Friday it would likely take up to two years to return the refugees, even after a possible NATO takeover of the province. And since then, another 20,000 refugees have streamed over the border at Blace into Macedonia, worsening the humanitarian crisis there.

Fron Nazi, an Albanian political analyst and reporter, says the situation is much more out of control than either Western politicians or the KLA acknowledge.

"You've got a disaster brewing," Nazi said by telephone from Tirana. "The refugee camps are in total disarray. The U.N. refugee agency is backed up. It can barely cope with the number of refugees already here, and more are coming. In Macedonia, everything is hanging by a thread. [Ethnic tensions] are being pushed to the limit. You've had fighting for the last two weeks across the Albanian border."

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Meanwhile, NATO remains committed to autonomy, but not independence, for Kosovo, while much of the KLA is demanding full independence from Yugoslavia. "You've got 30,000 armed and very angry KLA soldiers, demanding independence or nothing." The longer the conflict goes on, the harder it may become to get the KLA to agree to a political solution short of full independence for Kosovo.


Laura Rozen

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

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