War In The Balkans: From terrorists to freedom fighters

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FOR YEARS the Kosovars confined their opposition to Serb rule to non-violent protests. When the Croat president Franjo Tudjman urged them to rise in 1991, at the height of Croatia's war with Yugoslavia, the Kosovo leader Ibrahim Rugova refused. "We would be massacred," he told me at the time, in Pristina.

But after Croatia and then Bosnia broke away, the Kosovars' frustration with Rugova's tactics boiled over and so the KLA was born.

Reports of the Kosovo Liberation Army early last year were dismissed at first as Serbian propaganda, aimed at justifying Belgrade's worsening repression of the province's two million Albanians. But in spring the new rebel army burst on to the world stage, rapidly over-running large tracts of the province and even attempting to take over the large central town of Orahovac.

The word "army" still seemed an exaggeration for the rag-tag groups of farmers and school teachers with rusty rifles and mismatched uniforms. But they did have some money, funnelled back into Kosovo from the huge Albanian diaspora based in Switzerland, Sweden, Germany and the United States.

The Serbs decided to let the KLA over-extend itself, in order to have the excuse to crush both the KLA and the villages and towns where it was strongest.

In a massive assault last summer, Orahovac and many other villages were smashed to pieces and thousands of civilians driven from their homes.

The latest Serb offensive, which is vastly bigger in scale and scope, appears to have thrown the KLA completely on to the defensive.

"They have been told to make no offensive attacks on the Serbs," said Isa Zymberi, a Kosovar representative in London. "They don't want it to look as if they are taking advantage of air strikes. All the units still inside Kosovo are engaged in helping the civilians."

Mr Zymberi said the KLA was still operating but was crippled by a lack of weapons. Neighbouring Albania, Europe's poorest state, is unable to do much to help. Tirana is also wary of openly flouting the international arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia, which covers Kosovo.

"The lack of arms is the main problem," Mr Zymberi said. "The KLA enjoys widespread support. Every Albanian supports them. They would have 200,000 fighters today if they had the arms, but they have none and have to turn people down as a result."

"What they want is covert arms supplies but they don't seem to have received any yet," said Tim Judah, a Balkan expert who has studied the KLA.

He cautions against writing off the organisation, just because they are not confronting the Serb tanks.

"Last summer they melted away when the Serbs arrived. But after they had swept through, the KLA soon reappeared behind them", he said. "The Serbs simply don't have enough men to be everywhere in Kosovo all the time."

And one KLA source, who wanted to remain anonymous, said the organisation was "euphoric'" about the support it was starting to receive from the West. Once dismissed in the West as "terrorists", the KLA now seems the West's best alternative to putting in ground troops. "We are practically part of Nato now," the source said.