War in The Balkans: KLA engages in fierce fighting with Serb army

Guerrilla Warfare
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The Independent Online
DAYS AFTER its ceasefire came into effect, the Yugoslav army is fighting fierce battles with Kosovo guerrillas and shelling groups of civilian refugees, Western monitors in contact with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) say.

They describe a situation in which fugitives, guided and protected by KLA soldiers, are being fired upon by Serb tanks and artillery as they camp out on snowy hillsides.

Officials of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) who are in contact with KLA commanders via satellite telephone, say that the Serbs' artillery bombardment has continued in the KLA-held Pagarusa valley, despite a reported attack by Nato forces on Serb positions.

They also believe that the KLA has changed its tactics: instead of trying to defend villages from the Serbs it is concentrating on hit-and-run guerrilla attacks against the Yugoslav army, while attempting to protect the huge numbers of displaced Albanians trapped in the hills.

Over the past 10 days, the KLA has started operating in groups of four to six men and ambushing armoured columns with shoulder-aimed RPG-7 rocket launchers.

Against the Serbs' largest tanks they have had little success, but they have succeeded in depriving cavalry units of their infantry support. "The Serbs used to say that it would take them four days to get rid of the KLA," a British member of the OSCE said. "Now they've been going for three weeks."

William Walker, head of the OSCE verification mission, said that the ethnic Albanian fighters have no option but to withdraw from villages when they come under attack. "The KLA pull out of villages and let them be burned rather than stay to defend them," he said.

"That shows what KLA capabilities are now. They've told us how they're running out of ammunition and the various necessities of life. They're in bad shape, short term."

But Mr Walker says that the number of fighters is on the rise. "[Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic has been the best recruiting sergeant the KLA could have hoped for. With a lot of young Kosovo Albanian men and women in the refugee camps who lost a parent or relative or saw their village burn, I would be very surprised not to see a groundswell of KLA support here."

New recruits are coming from the newly dispossessed refugees as well from within Albania with young men and women wanting to help their relatives across the border.

The British OSCE member said that in spite their weak situation vis-a- vis the Serbs, the guerrillas had improved their military effectiveness. "Last summer they were seen as a complete mess, not much more than a peasant army," he said. "Since then they've developed a command structure."

Exact numbers are difficult to determine but military analysts in Skopje estimate that the KLA has between 8,000 and 12,000 fighters, who fall into of three different types. A few hundred are well-trained professionals, mostly former members of the Yugoslav army. A larger group of them are training in secret camps, most of which are in Albania. The rest are fighting in the hills of Kosovo.

The rebel army's greatest lack is not manpower, but ammunition. OSCE officials believe that only small amounts of ammunition are making it over the border from Albania. The KLA's arsenal consists, in effect, of light arms and a small number of RPG anti-tank weapons and Kalashnikov rounds which they have captured from Serb units.

But it is the heavy stuff that the KLA say that they need and they say if these are given there will be no need for Nato troops. One of its most senior commanders, Xheladin Gashi, who is in regular contact with United States diplomats in Albania, said: " We do not need Nato troops, we need anti-tank weapons. We can then take the offensive and do the job ourselves."

Although the West denies that it is arming the KLA, the rebel army acts as Nato's eyes and ears in Kosovo. Defence sources say that they are providing crucial aid to the alliance, acting as spotters on the ground enabling allied airplanes to target and hit Yugoslav army armour and heavy guns.

And the guerrilla organisation is being presented by the West as a crucial player in Kosovo. At yesterday's briefing in London at the Ministry of Defence, one of the first things mentioned by Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, was a phone call he had received from Hashim Thaqi, the KLA commander in Kosovo. This was just the latest mention of the organisation in glowing terms among government ministers in London, Washington and Brussels.

Contacts are taking place on regular and amicable basis between the KLA and American and Nato officials. KLA representatives can now be found in European capitals busy portraying the organisation as a serious political party. One KLA official said: "We are the real voice of Kosovo. When Kosovo is liberated we shall be leading the country. There is no alternative and we feel Nato is trying to realise that. What we need now are the arms."

There is, however, an embarrassing quandary for the West. Police forces across Europe accuse sections of the KLA of being involved in serious illegality, with much of their funding coming from drugs. Europol, the European police authority, is preparing a report on the KLA's narcotics connection after collating intelligence reports from Scandinavia, Switzerland and Germany. The US State Department has also spoken of the KLA's drugs links.

Then there is the question of the KLA's peculiar politics, which range from old-fashioned nationalist to Marxist-Leninist. The KLA official said: "There are some in the Pentagon who don't like us, but we are the ones doing the fighting and they cannot change everything. As far as the drugs are concerned, maybe there are a few people who got involved. But we are fighting for our lives. We don't have the time or the facility to check everyone's background."