War In Europe: Expatriates swell ranks of KLA

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MANY OF the young men were seasick even before the Maria Dolores heaved and pitched her way across the Strait of Otranto and into the dreary port of Durres. Upstairs, in the VIP lounge, Independence Day was playing on the video recorder, but it was hard to imagine this green, hungry-looking rabble liberating anything - let alone land held by battle-hardened Serbian troops.

They had left Bari in Italy and were on their way to Albania to join the Kosovo Liberation Army. Like a band of volunteers on their way to join civil war Spain's International Brigade, they had fear and excitement in their eyes, but gave off an aura of having no idea of what they were getting themselves into.

This was the trickle that the KLA hopes will become a flood, a mass mobilisation of men prepared to take up arms against Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian forces. No one outside a secretive clique knows exactly how many are being trained in camps in the mountains of northern Albania, but in an interview a KLA official said 300 men a day were signing up to a force already numbering "many tens of thousands".

"They are coming to Albania through Italy and across on boats," he said. "There are some Albanians, but 99 per cent are Kosovars living abroad, men who want to liberate their homeland. They are given training and then sent into proper military units under a commander - they are disciplined brigades, not guerrilla fighters."

The men have uniforms, mainly Kalashnikov light wea-pons and mortars, but no armour and no heavy artillery. They have been protecting some Kosovo communities, largely in the Mitrovica mountains in northern Kosovo, but most of their activities appear to be limited to skirmishes with the Yugoslav army.

As the Maria Dolores rose and fell, the young men's apprehension appeared worse than their seasickness. "We are going to join the KLA and win our homeland back," said one volunteer who gave his name as Jan. It was not his real name. He could not give that. No one could: they were on a "secret mission".

"My father is missing, and my mother and two sisters were in Macedonia the last I heard, so God knows where they are now. I have to do something to resist - what would you do if it was your country?"

The KLA has become the focus for such sentiment, but its origins are recent and a little shady. It was spawned in 1993 from the money of Kosovars in exile who had become impatient with the Democratic League of Kosovo leader Ibrahim Rugova.

The KLA were largely ignored by most Kosovars and Western strategists amid rumours linking it with criminal activities among Albanians across Europe. But in 1997, when riots broke out in Albania following the collapse of a series of pyramid investment schemes, the country became awash with weapons which were subsequently bought by the KLA and smuggled into Kosovo.

Small groups of KLA followers began attacking Serbian police patrols involved in ethnic cleansing, but this attracted further Serb assaults. Last March, Serbian forces attacked the home of Adem Jashari, a regional KLA leader, killing him and 80 others - increasing tension and helping the KLA to recruit. It subsequently claimed to have driven the Serbs out of one third of Kosovo.

The Serbian response was brutal and devastating and the KLA was crushed. But now, it is regrouping and attracting men like those on the Maria Dolores.

On Friday, there were up to 100 volunteers on the boat, but few of them would talk openly. "We want to fight - it is our land and we are hungrier for it than the Serbs," said one volunteer. But, as others around him vomited into plastic bags, one could not help thinking that they would have to endure far worse than seasickness before Kosovo is free again.