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Inside a Rebellion:Banking On War

By Jonathan S. LandayStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 15, 1998


In 1982, they were arrested, beaten, and jailed for belonging to the Kosovo People's Movement, a coalition of underground groups in a campaign for greater political rights for Serbia's ethnic Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo.

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Now, Bardhyl Mahmuti, Jashar Shalihu, and Bilall Sherifi have abandoned peaceful protest for armed struggle, one the United States and other powers are scrambling to keep from erupting into a war that could engulf the region.

The trio is helping run international fund-raising for the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), funneling cash from Albanians in the US, Europe, and elsewhere to buy weapons for rebels fighting for Kosovo's independence from the iron-fisted rule of Serbia, which with Montenegro is all that remains of Yugoslavia.

The three spoke openly for the first time in an interview with the Monitor about the KLA's strategy, views, and the support from Albanian communities around the world. Added to interviews with KLA sympathizers in the US, the information provides one of the most comprehensive pictures to date of the world's newest ethnic insurgency.

They scoff at an arms embargo slapped on Yugoslavia March 31 by the United Nations at the behest of the US, European allies, and Russia in a bid to keep a lid on the crisis.

The KLA, they say, is buying arms in Serbia and Montenegro, flush with weapons from the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Arms are also known to flow in from Albania.

The interview with the three former political prisoners was arranged by their main US operative, an immigrant from Kosovo who has relatives in the KLA and meets regularly with their leaders in Europe. It was held late last week in Aarau, a village 30 miles from Zurich, at "The Voice of Kosovo," a newspaper published by members of their party who were given political asylum in Switzerland in the early 1990s.

The office was adorned with large photographs of a KLA leader named Adem Jashari, his brother, and father. All three were killed in a Serbian police crackdown on the separatists in February and March in which more than 80 ethnic Albanians were slain in the Drenica region.

In the pictures, Mr. Jashari poses in a camouflage uniform and wields a machine gun. His father and brother are clad in traditional Albanian garb and clutch rifles.

To Belgrade, the US, and other powers, the Jasharis and other KLA fighters are "terrorists" who have killed postmen and other civilian minions of Serbia's colonial-style rule of Kosovo, including Albanians loyal to Belgrade. But as a result of brazen KLA attacks on police stations and the Serbian crackdown in Drenica, ethnic Albanians inside and outside Kosovo have now come to revere the rebels as freedom fighters.

"The UCK has killed only members of the repressive state structure," said Mr. Mahmuti, using the KLA's Albanian-language acronym. "One thing must be clear, the repressive state structure is formed by officials in uniform ... and without uniform."

He and his associates say they funnel to the KLA cash raised by sympathizers in the large Albanian communities in Western Europe, the US, Turkey, and Australia. Enraged by the slaughter of women and children in the Serbian assaults, these communities are donating sums that Mr. Salihu puts at "tens of millions of dollars.

"It [money] is coming from everywhere," says Salihu, who has piercing dark eyes and a bushy moustache.

A rising threat

Indeed, even senior US officials acknowledge that the Serbian crackdown has brought fame and funds to the KLA, making it a serious threat to international efforts to push Belgrade and moderate ethnic Albanian leaders into talks on restoring the province's autonomy.