Kosovo rebels to adopt guerrilla tactics

Paul Wood,Kosovo
Sunday 09 August 1998 23:02

THE KLA fighter looked tired and drawn as he emerged from the dense oak forest, his hiding place since the Serbian offensive in central Kosovo began.

Some village children had walked up the dusty hillside path to give him a bag of plums, his staple diet for the past three weeks. "This is just survival," he said. "I don't know, what will we do next?" The leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army must be asking themselves the same question.

The Serbian offensive in the Drenica region of Kosovo is over, with just "mopping up operations" continuing, the authorities say. Serbian armoured vehicles have swept away the checkpoints which marked the beginning of what ethnic Albanians called "free Kosovo". The towns and villages which were KLA strongholds are gutted and empty; the fighters and their families have taken to the surrounding hills.

"The KLA will do what they should have done from the start - wage a classic guerrilla campaign," said one ethnic Albanian source close to those who want the armed struggle to continue. The past few weeks have shown that in a pitched battle, KLA fighters armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles are no match for Yugoslav armour and artillery: a guerrilla campaign may be their only military option.

The alternative would be to accept whatever peace deal the international community can broker with Yugoslavia's leader, Slobodan Milosevic. That would mean giving up the cherished ideal of an independent Kosovo Albanian state. Nobody I spoke to in Drenica - fighters or civilians - was prepared to do that.

If the KLA does wage a guerrilla campaign it will be faced with the problem of what to do with the civilian population. A massive humanitarian crisis is looming. With tens of thousands of displaced people in central Kosovo, many are living out in the open without clean water, and running out of food.

Over the hills and an hour's drive from the last metalled road, we came across one group of about 100 refugees. They had built shelters from oak saplings, weaving the branches together to keep the rain out. The women were cooking what little food they had on open fires, the men were digging to find clean water, but some of children had already drunk from a stagnant pool.

"I never thought I would see such things with my own eyes," said Aslan Hoxha, a 40-year-old man who has been looking for his wife and six children ever since his village was overrun by Serbian forces two weeks ago. "They were attacking civilians with tanks. There was an old man cut in half by tank fire." The refugees said their houses had been set alight by the Serbian police to stop them returning. "Where is Nato?" was the question at every refugee camp.

Driving through the town of Malisevo, the biggest town under KLA control before the offensive, every building on the main street had been destroyed by fire. Fallen power cables lay across the road and stray dogs wandered between burned out cars and rubble. Not one Albanian remained; the only inhabitants were Serbian police.

Serbian officials maintain that homes caught fire during the fighting, but one house was burning while we were in Malisevo, the flames leaping from the roof and black smoke rising in a plume visible for miles.

"The Serbian offensive has probably achieved its objectives," said one Western diplomat, "which is to regain control of the main roads and push the KLA into the hills."

Most of the villages of central Kosovo are 100 per cent Albanian and the Serbian police do not appear interested in trying to control them. The Government offensive was triggered when, last month, the KLA attempted to seize the town of Orahavat, which does have a large minority of Serbs.

"I defended my own house," said Velimir Vitosevic, one of the town's Serb inhabitants and vice president of the local branch of the right-wing Serbian Radical Party. He said that at least 55 Serb civilians had been kidnapped by the KLA and an unarmed neighbour had been killed by a KLA sniper. Sitting in the state-owned general store which he manages, Mr Vitosevic said he was happy to live with his Albanian neighbours - "they are my customers" - but not the "extremists" who he said wanted to destroy Serbs.

The international community is pushing for a peace plan based on autonomy for Kosovo within Yugoslavia but any Serb or Albanian leader who accepts it will face accusations of betrayal from their own side. On the ground, both sides are preparing for a long war.

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