Kosovo rebels warn of backlash

Emma Daly,Kosovo
Tuesday 20 October 1998 23:02

A SENIOR Albanian rebel commander in Kosovo has warned the West that his separatist army will not abide by a self- declared ceasefire in the rebellious Serbian province unless Belgrade withdraws Yugoslav forces and helps the return home of refugees.

There are at least 50,000 people thought to be sleeping rough in forests. "When the KLA declared a ceasefire we said that we would retain the right to shoot back," Shaban Shala said yesterday. "We will stand behind this ceasefire on condition that UN Resolution 1199 [requiring Serb withdrawals] is implemented."

He said that Serbian attacks were continuing on several fronts and said that the reinforcement of Serb police and army positions west of Pristina had forced civilians to abandon their villages again. "The Serbs are not interested in seeing Albanians returning to their homes," he said, "because after all, this war was done in order to change the ethnic structure." Mr Shala was a senior official of the Council for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedom in Pristina, writing reports on abuses by the authorities of ethnic Albanians, until he left civilian life.

The UN resolution was followed last week by a deal brokered between Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy, and President Slobodan Milosevic, in which Belgrade agreed to reduce its armed forces in the area to pre-war levels. It has until Tuesday to comply and has recently pulled two battalions out of Kosovo.However, in the past few days large military convoys, including tanks and other armoured vehicles, have been seen digging in west of Pristina around areas held by the KLA, where thousands of homeless civilians are taking refuge.

"Again, as before, a compromise was made that goes against the interests of the Albanians," said Mr Shala, who is believed to be a member of the KLA's collective leadership within Kosovo. The group's chain of command is murky to outsiders, but includes a civilian political element in exile. "It looks as if Milosevic has drawn them into his game."

Albanians complain that the Holbrooke deal allows the Yugoslav President to keep 20,000 police and soldiers in Kosovo. Even if Mr Milosevic complies, "he has the same repressive apparatus he has had all along. The situation does not change in quality, only in quantity," said Veton Suroi, editor of Koha Ditore, the leading Albanian-language daily in Kosovo.

The 2,000 unarmed "verifiers" dispatched by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, whose job will be to assess Mr Milosevic's compliance, will not be in action for some time, according to Major-General John Drewienkiewicz, a Briton seconded to the OSCE team. "It's weeks, but it's not many weeks," he said.

There are no facilities in place for the monitors - who need offices, housing, telecommunications, cars and interpreters - and it will take far longer to set up than if it were a military operation, the general explained. "The OSCE doesn't have armoured divisions in the cupboard just waiting to have water sprinkled on them."

The OSCE has not yet decided on the verifiers' modus operandi, but it seems clear they will need to roam far and freely across the wooded hills and green rolling fields of Kosovo if they are to create the kind of atmosphere in which conflict can be suspended and refugees can go home safely.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that about 150,000 people remain displaced inside Kosovo, with perhaps 50,000 of those sleeping outdoors.

Another 50,000 displaced people are believed to have returned home to ruined villages in the past few weeks - although some have been forced to flee again by the fighting.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments