Crisis meeting as KLA rejects deal to disarm

THE PROSPECTS for a peaceful transition to civilian rule in Kosovo have received a serious setback after the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) rejected Nato's plans for its demilitarisation.

As the crisis threatened to deepen, Nato unexpectedly sent its supreme commander, Wesley Clark, to Kosovo's capital, Pristina, yesterday to persuade the guerrilla force to carry through its declaration to disarm, made after the liberation of the province in June.

General Clark went immediately into a meeting with Agim Ceku, the chief of staff of the KLA, while General Sir Mike Jackson, the commander of Nato's Kosovo Force (K-For) warned the organisation that its actions were putting at risk "Kosovo's future as a whole".

With some disputes still unresolved, Nato has agreed to a 48-hour extension of the deadline, until Tuesday midnight, with the support of the UN civil administrator, Bernard Kouchner. Nato's aim is to re-invent the 10,000-strong KLA as a 5,000-member civilian body, the Kosovo Corps, to carry out humanitarian missions and civil protection.

But the KLA leaders are said to have presented a host of objections, starting with the name Kosovo Corps. They argue that it should be a National Guard, forming the nucleus of a future Kosovan army, as stated in the declaration. They also insist that they should have control of the new force, and they want the number of corps members allowed to carry weapons for self-protection and guarding key installations after demilitarisation increased from 200 to 400. There is also argument over access to weapons.

Against a background of continuing attacks on Kosovo's remaining Serb population and intimidation of Kosovo Albanian opponents of the KLA, senior Nato commanders have privately voiced grave reservations about the extent of the KLA's arms handover. Of 10,000 weapons surrendered so far, 9,000 are small arms - and some of them, and the small amount of heavier weaponry given in, are decidedly elderly stock, such as bolt-action rifles.

Hashim Thaci, leader of the KLA and unelected prime minister of a provisional government for Kosovo, pointed out that General Jackson had agreed publicly that the KLA's arms handover had been on schedule. He added: "The decommissioning process is still ongoing. The talks are ongoing, but they have been postponed."

Observers point out that Mr Thaci and Mr Ceku will have to keep on board many KLA commanders who are increasingly angry that the group's contribution to the defeat of Slobodan Milosevic's forces has not been recognised.

The Russians, part of the peace-keeping force in Kosovo, have indicated that they would vehemently oppose the KLA keeping its arms and existing structures under another name.

Protests also came from Belgrade, which called the talks "a farce" and accused Nato of giving in to "KLA blackmail".

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