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Liberation of Kosovo: Crunch time for KLA to give up guns

ONE OF the most crucial deadlines in the Kosovo peace process passes today when soldiers of the Kosovo Liberation Army have to hand over weapons and uniforms or move to special assembly areas.

Under terms of the undertaking which was agreed last week between Hashim Thaci, the KLA commander-in-chief, and the K-For commander, General Sir Mike Jackson, by midnight tonight the KLA must also have cleared all its minefields and booby-traps. From then on, only senior KLA officers and their bodyguards will be allowed outside the assembly areas.

The deadline marks one of the key stages in the demilitarisation process. K-For realises that, to have any chance of creating confidence among both Albanians and Serbs, it must be seen to be the only military force operating in Kosovo.

"The KLA have committed themselves to bringing all their people with guns or uniforms into these areas. If they then wish to leave these areas they will have to leave their uniforms and weapons behind," a spokesman for K-For said. "If we find KLA people in uniform or carrying guns outside these areas, they will be arrested."

Last week's undertakinggives the KLA 90 days completely to disband as a military force.

K-For hopes that, given the limited areas in which they can still carry arms from today, many KLA soldiers will decide to hand over their weapons and uniforms much sooner.

K-For said many KLA soldiers in the south of Kosovo had already handed over their arms. "We hope that they decide there is not a lot of point hanging on to their weapons," said the spokesman.

He said K-For soldiers would be monitoring the 20 or so assembly areas, the location of which has not been released.

Convincing the KLA to make the handovers will not be easy. Among Albanian communities still coming to terms with the withdrawal of Serb forces, the uniforms and insignia of the KLA are worn with huge pride.

In addition, many former KLA soldiers are still holding on to their weapons - adamant that they will keep them until they see how developments unfold.