The War in the Balkans: KLA tells Nato: `Arm us or invade'

The Resistance
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The Independent Online
THOUSANDS OF Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) troops are massing in the north of the province to defend 250,000 ethnic Albanian civilians trapped by the fighting, and to prevent Yugoslav forces from partitioning the area.

According to a KLA commander in the field, more than 10,000 men are offering fierce resistance in the north to counter any hopes Slobodan Milosevic might harbour of holding on to the mineral-rich region in the event of a peace deal being struck with Nato.

In interviews with The Independent, Xhavit Haliti, the KLA's political spokesman, said that the entire population of Kosovo could be returned to their homes by the end of July if Nato would either deploy ground troops or provide the KLA with weapons.

He said the KLA was sharing intelligence with Nato, was guiding Alliance aircraft to Serb positions, and was holding three more prisoners of war - two Serbs and a Russian mercenary - inside Kosovo.

Speaking by satellite phone, a KLA commander in the field, who did not wish to be named, said the KLA had been defending 250,000 civilians in the Lapski and Shalja region in the north. "We are doing well, but we are concerned about food and medicines, which are running very low," he said.

Mr Haliti said Serb-free "safe zones" had been established around several areas in central Kosovo. "We believe we now hold more than one-third of Kosovo," he said. "Give us the tools and we will do the job."

Along with protecting the Albanian civilians, the KLA is trying to prevent Yugoslav forces from completely de-populating the region as part of a potential partition offer.

The strategy is aimed at holding onto these areas, so they cannot be used as bargaining chips by Milosevic. Kosovo Albanians fear that Belgrade may offer a truce and hand over part of the province in exchange for Kosovo's strategic, economic and historical assets in the north. These include valuable mines and sites of religious importance to the Serbs.

At the back of the KLA's mind is the precedent of Bosnia. For several years after ethnic warfare broke out in Bosnia in 1992 the Western powers maintained they would never accept a territorial division of the republic along ethnic lines. But, in 1995, the US-brokered peace deal at Dayton, Ohio, partitioned Bosnia between the Serbs and the Muslim-Croat federation.

They also know that Milosevic's one-time intellectual mentor, the Serbian writer Dobrica Cosic, has often played with the notion of partitioning Kosovo between Serbs and Albanians, with the Serbs getting the biggest share of the region, although they comprise only 10 per cent of Kosovo's population.

The KLA believes the Serbs intend to partition Kosovo along a line stretching from the north-western city of Pec to the south eastern region of Krajmorav. Such a line would give the Serbs the capital of the province, Pristina, the major town of Mitrovica, part of the Drenica region and Kosovo Polje, site of the Serbian battle with the Turks in 1389 and a place with great historical resonance for the Serbs. It is also thought that the Serbs have their eyes on copper and zinc mines in the Shalja area.

Belgrade is also believed to be aiming to secure the major highways that lead west, from Kosovo to the Montenegro port of Kotor, through the city of Pec. By taking the region of Kraj Morave, the Serbs would build a buffer to the highway that skirts Kosovo and leads, via Macedonia, to the Greek port of Thessaloniki.

The total partition plan is believed to envisage an ethnically pure Slav border between Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia.

Mr Haliti believes the KLA can prevent any such partition. During an interview at the KLA headquarters in Tirana, he said the Kosovars were making gains and were playing a significant role in the Nato bombardment. "We have been giving details of Serb positions to Nato and, where we target, Nato bombs," he said. "There is an exchange of intelligence. We give it to Nato and we also receive it."

Mr Haliti revealed that he had met General Wesley Clark, the supreme Allied commander, three times. Each time he had appealed for Nato to intervene on the ground, or to supply the KLA with armour and artillery. It currently has only automatic weapons and mortars.

Mr Haliti denied the KLA was receiving weapons from Nato - but on his desk was an equipment requisition list, written in English and bearing the serial number "B1-G2". G2 is an identification code for US military intelligence.

"We are doing well and we have established some safe zones," he said. "We have also been taking prisoners. We are holding two Serbs and a Russian in the town of Pashtrik, which we control. They are officers and are being interrogated and held in accordance with international law. They were all captured in Yugoslav military uniforms." He said the Russian was a mercenary.

"Our main concern is that Nato either ends in ground troops or gives us weapons," he said. "If it gives us weapons, we believe we can drive the Serbs out without risk to Nato troops, then they could follow later. We have been making representations to Nato countries."

The Albanians fear that Nato will never arm the KLA and will eventually be seduced by the offer of a ceasefire. Partition could then follow.

Ylber Hysa, of the Kosovo Action and Civic Initiative, formerly a Pristina- based think-tank, said: "If the West buys into any part of this [Serb] scheme for ending the war, then they will have set a precedent for the region. Aggression will have been rewarded and it will be clear that territories can be divided according to both ethnic and economic lines."

Fron Nazi is a correspondent for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting