KLA `trapped and on point of breaking'

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The Independent Online
LIVING CONDITIONS are so bad now for civilians trapped in the mountains of southern Kosovo that the rebels are encouraging them to seek refuge in Albania rather than stay in their homeland.

Soldiers of the Kosovo Liberation Army and civilians alike are subsisting on bread, potatoes and the meat of livestock roaming wild, with the milk of cows and goats set aside for children and babies. They are living in huts made of branches and covered with tarpaulins, or out in the open, sleeping on piles of grass. "Water is not a huge problem because there are many streams and springs, but the difficulty is keeping these water supplies clean, because people are also washing in it," said Nexhi, a KLA commander working in the Pashtrik zone, which includes the towns of Prizren, Malisevo and Suva Reka.

"The [KLA] army is no longer able to care for civilians and their plight is making things worse for the soldiers," he said. "The refugees are leaving [Kosovo] for many reasons - health, food - and we are trying to protect their route out."

According to the military journal Jane's Defence Weekly, claims by the Serbs that they have defeated the KLA are close to the truth. Jane's says the KLA has only about 4,000 fighters still left in Kosovo penned into three small areas. Most of its force of 20,000 have fled to Albania.

Nexhi, who is chief of staff for his zone, believes some 200,000 civilians are still living in the area, most in the city of Prizren, in the surrounding villages, or in the mountains around. Their presence limited the KLA's ability to wage war on the Serbs, he said. But he claimed none the less that in the first five weeks of the Nato air campaign some 300 Serbs had been killed in the Pashtrik zone, compared to KLA casualties of 15 dead and 40 wounded.

Medical care for the remaining Albanian fighters in Kosovo was said to be rudimentary. Minor wounds were treated by the soldiers themselves and more serious cases were sent to tented field hospitals which are poorly equipped and lack drugs and other supplies. Although new recruits were pouring in, Nexhi admitted: "We don't have guns for them."

He added that the KLA lacked officers with tactical experience in previous Balkan wars in Croatia and Bosnia, and who knew the Serbs' strengths and weaknessness.

Nexhi also said his men had captured a Serbian commander, but later released him. "Our policy with prisoners was always to set them free," he said.

Ilir Jemini, a civilian who crossed the border into Albania this week after spending several weeks in the mountains around his home in Suva Reka, said: "It was impossible to stay in the mountains because we had no food ... We helped the KLA by digging small bunkers in the ground, because we did not know how else to assist. We did not have guns to fight."

He said the KLA controlled only a few villages, but they were now relatively safe from attack. "The Serbs cannot bring their heavy equipment to these villages," Mr Jemini said. "Before, when the Serbs had heavy weapons, the Serbs won, but now they are equal to the KLA, it's a draw."

Mr Jemini lost touch with his family weeks ago, but he borrowed a KLA satellite telephone to call his brother in Germany, and learnt that they had escaped to Albania.

"Time is our enemy," he said. "The KLA will prevail if Nato continues to bomb but as for the civilians, I am afraid many of them will die or be hurt. If Nato does not give the KLA weapons I don't think it will be possible to win."

t The KLA confirmed yesterday that it has appointed a former brigadier general in the Croatian army, Agim Ceku, as its new leader. Mr Ceku, a Kosovo Albanian, was one of the key planners behind "Operation Storm" in which the Croats drove the Serbs out of the Krajina region of Croatia. He replaces Sylejman Selimi, a political appointee, who has been criticised following recent military setbacks