Ragtag KLA not winning, not losing

Rebel army has few resources, but high morale and NATO air support

On a windy escarpment overlooking fallow fields and empty villages in western Kosovo, a young ethnic Albanian rebel swings a pick at the foot of a small concrete pyramid marking the Albania-Yugoslavia frontier.

"This was a wound for us. We are going to heal it forever," exclaims Rambo, the nom de guerre of a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighter. Beside him, the pick-wielder labors to uproot the marker symbolically wrapped in a bandage.

But the effort goes awry. First, the pick handle splinters. Then, as Rambo tries to heave the marker out by hand, a Serbian shell explodes nearby, sending him and his unit for cover.

Staged for several Western journalists, the ceremony seems to exemplify the KLA's uphill struggle against Serbian control of Kosovo (see story, page 7). The rebels have for several weeks been carving a corridor from the frontier into the province: The border-marker rite testifies to their slow but steady advance and high morale.

It also refutes Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's claims that the KLA has been "completely smashed" and the frontier "well-secured."

But their broken pick and failure to dig the marker up are emblematic of the organizational disarray and lack of appropriate weapons that are preventing them from making major gains against their better-armed foes. And, while they have benefited from NATO airstrikes on Yugoslav units in the area, rebels say the alliance has failed to hit concentrations of Serbian troops, tanks, and artillery.

"If NATO only stays in the air, this war will never end," says a commander, who gave his name as Shqiponje, Albanian for "Eagle," during a visit to a captured Yugoslav Army base at Kosara, about half a mile inside Kosovo.

NATO refuses to back the KLA despite criticism that seven weeks of bombing have brought it no closer to ending the Serbian "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo's 2 million majority ethnic Albanians, of whom 750,000 are now refugees.

A United States official, speaking anonymously, says supporting the KLA would undermine Russian-led diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis now made more difficult by the errant NATO bombing of China's Embassy in Belgrade the night of May 7.

Furthermore, he says, arming the rebels would breach a United Nations arms embargo and could provoke Russia and China, Belgrade's main sympathizers, to supply weapons to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's regime, inflaming the conflict. "There are several problems and all of them manifest themselves simultaneously," he says.

Some rebels say they are receiving help from other sources, including military trainers and volunteers from the US, Italy, Scandinavia, and Britain. One says a German named Mike, a veteran of nine wars, was badly wounded a day earlier. He also says 14 Islamic fighters - he refers to them as "mujahideen" - had arrived despite the KLA's repeated denials of links to such groups. His claim could not be confirmed.

The absence of direct NATO support has not deterred the KLA in its slow drive to push the corridor into a rebel-held enclave around the village of Junik from base camps some 3,000 feet up in the Northern Albanian Alps.

Commanders claim they are within a half mile of the enclave, where they believe thousands of ethnic Albanian civilians are trapped with little food. A breakthrough would allow them to escape into Albania and permit the resupply of KLA forces holding the pocket. But success is far from certain as the KLA would have to drive through a major concentration of Yugoslav tanks and troops dug in around the town of Batusa, which have so far escaped serious NATO punishment.

Still, rebels say they have been helped by NATO raids that have destroyed other Yugoslav artillery units or forced them to redeploy away from the border.

"They are hitting places that they [Serbian troops] are using to shoot at us," says Hysan Berisha, a commander of the First "Bashkim Jasiqi" Battalion. "They had to change their artillery positions, and it is harder to hit us."

A Western observer in the region confirms that NATO strikes have greatly reduced cross-border Serbian shelling. He says NATO has hit Yugoslav artillery units at the Morini and Summer border posts and Mt. Planek, and forced them out of Ponosevac. But, while the KLA has capitalized by expanding its grip on high ground along the border, he says it has suffered high casualties.

He also doubts it is strong enough to capture and hold the low ground around Batusa against Serbian armor.

A four-hour tour of KLA base camps on the border and the former Yugoslav Army barracks at Kosara - Koshare in Albanian - confirms how the rebels have consolidated their positions since a visit by the Monitor two weeks ago.

The atmosphere is relaxed despite fighting at the front about six miles away. Rebels clad in an assortment of camouflage uniforms stroll at ease along dirt paths between small encampments and ammunition stores on the forested mountain tops. There are many more of them than there were two weeks ago.

Berisha's men enjoy the sunshine, sitting by several captured Serbian mortars and a heavy machine gun, chatting or listening to Albanian music tapes.

They show no apparent concern as the sounds of machine-gun fire and explosions float up the mountainside. Rambo hones a knife on the bayonet of an AK-47 assault rifle.

After the abortive border-marker ceremony, held next to a demolished Yugoslav watch tower, the visitors spend time talking with Berisha in his command post, a shelter of plastic sheets set amid a grove of trees. A cluster of antipersonnel mines, their fuses removed, sits on a makeshift shelf.

The interview turns to politics. Berisha, a serious man from Pristina, says his unit would still accept a US-authored plan - Milosevic's rejection of which triggered NATO bombing March 24 - that would put Kosovo's status on hold for three years but grant it self-rule under the protection of a NATO-led force. Yet after Serbian ethnic cleansing, he adds, Kosovo must ultimately secede from Yugoslavia. "The perfect solution for us is an independent Kosovo," he says.

The visit ends at the Kosara barracks. In its wood-paneled canteen, Serbian soldiers once ate and relaxed while watching television.

This day, it serves noisy gaggles of KLA fighters a thick stew and hunks of bread.

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