Kosovo's rebellion 'still alive'

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The Independent Online
IN THE hills outside Banja, a village 30 miles south-west of the regional capital of Pristina, a bearded officer of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in camouflage fatigues and cradling a Kalashnikov grimly considers his future after a crushing Serb offensive that has seized most of the territory the rebels held only two weeks ago.

Was the KLA demoralised and beaten by the Serb-led Yugoslav army? "Nous sommes plus forts," he answered in French. "We are stronger".

The boast seemed like empty bravado. Stunning battlefield setbacks suggest the KLA is in a desperately weakened position compared to a few weeks ago, when the rebels controlled up to 40 per cent of Kosovo and most of the major roads, such as the strategically vital Pristina-Pec highway.

Today undisputed KLA strongholds are restricted to the village of Junik, on the western border with Albania, and a tenuous pocket in the central Drenica region, around the village of Prekaz.

In Prekaz, reeling from their defeats, rebel fighters shuffled in the hot sun, nervously awaiting oblivion as smoke rose from the recently overrun village of Lausa, to the west.

One weary soldier had escaped from Lausa only days before. He described the "bombardments", probably mortar fire, and the tank attacks and the torching of houses which form part of the "scorched earth" strategy that the Serbs are employing in the wake of their advances.

On the map, the KLA is losing badly. But KLA assurances that they are stronger than ever underscores two important factors.

With nowhere to retreat to, the bulk of the KLA will determinedly fight on. Secondly, as a guerilla force, the KLA's strength is not always to be measured by the amount of territory they hold.

"I personally believe the KLA will not be destroyed," said one member of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), the Albanian political party, based in Pristina. "We have no place to go. We have to protect ourselves. You have to remember, the KLA are not soldiers. They are people who are protecting their houses."

As a home guard, rather than a conventional army, much of the KLA is an almost invisible force. Its men are farmers by day and fighters (if necessary) by night. The casualty figures do not necessarily suggest a decimated rebel force.

According to some estimates, only about 50 KLA fighters have died in recent fighting, out of a total rebel force numbering thousands before the recent Yugoslav army offensive. The KLA is losing territory more than men.

On road between Komorone and Srbica, about 18 miles west of Pristina, Yugoslav police are ensconced in heavily fortified checkpoints. They ostensibly control the highway. But on Saturday a rebel van bearing KLA number plates slowly cruised past the police road blocks. Young men, probably uniformed KLA fighters, loitered along the road and waved casually at our passing car.

Although the Serb police patrol the burned-out town of Malisevo, south- west of Pristina, over the weekend a uniformed KLA soldier in full battle gear was to be seen reclining in a chair outside a coffee shop in a village only a few miles away. Surrounded by children and other men, calmly smoking and drinking soft drinks, the fighter acted like a lazy tourist rather than a soldier in the midst of a war.

The KLA's message is that the Serbs may control the check points, but the rebels still rule the territory in between.

If Yugoslav forces do overrun the villages of Junik and Prekaz, one likely scenario is that full-time fighters will retreat into Albania, Macedonia and the Kosovo hills, from where they will continue the fight. The other members of the KLA will take off their yellow badges and disappear again into the general population, ready to take up arms when the time comes.

Like the Viet Cong, the KLA threatens to become an invisible enemy that the Yugoslav army and police can never quite eradicate.

The only hope of peace for the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, is to convince the secessionists of the KLA to accept a return to the regional autonomy from Serbia which Kosovo enjoyed before Mr Milosevic scrapped it in 1989. But today, as former KLA villages burn, this is an offer the rebels are unlikely to accept.

"The KLA has not died over the last 80 years," explained the LDK representative, harking back to Serbia's annexation of Kosovo just before the First World War. "I don't believe they will die now."