PRIZREN, YUGOSLAVIA — With the withdrawal of Serbian forces nearly complete, NATO is confronting the next critical phase of its Kosovo peacekeeping operation: disarming ethnic Albanian rebels.
Emerging from Kosovo's forested hills and bases in Albania, jubilant Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighters have swept into towns and villages on the heels of their retreating foes. In Prizren, they have moved into the Yugoslav Army's officers club and the police headquarters and patrol the streets in full view of German peacekeepers.
But this will soon change. Once the Serbian pullout is over - the deadline is Sunday - and the standoff with Rus-sian troops at Pristina airport is resolved, Western officials say NATO will see to it that the KLA sheds its arms and dissolves as a military organization. Whether it will, however, remains fraught with uncertainty, raising the potential for confrontation.
"It's a complete state of flux," says one United States official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We will have to see how this plays out."
Others believe there will be few problems. Says another US official, also speaking anonymously: "[KLA leader Hashim] Thaci has made it clear that when the time comes, he will issue the command."
Publicly, the US is emphasizing the KLA's obligations. "Our attitude toward the KLA is to hold them to their commitments," James Dobbins, who oversees US policy in the Balkans, said Wednesday.
The US is trying to persuade the leaders of a KLA-controlled provisional government to form a political party and run in polls, supervised by a yet-to-be-formed interim United Nations administration, for a provincial government.
But more pressing is the disarmament process, which senior KLA military commanders and NATO are now working out. "There will be a civilian police force, and a lot of the KLA will be incorporated into the civilian police," says deputy KLA leader Mehmet Hajrizi, who has set up an office in the provincial capital, Pristina.
"By all means," replies Halim Krasniqi, the youthful KLA military police commander in the Prizen region, when asked if the rebels would disarm. "We would like to cooperate with NATO in all spheres."
In one of their first peacekeeping activities, US Marines near the village of Vladovo took weapons on Wednesday from about 200 KLA fighters, who first refused to yield their arms but relented when threatened by armored personnel carriers and Cobra attack helicopters.
Divisions within the KLA
The KLA is split into factions led by powerful local commanders, some of whom in the past have disregarded orders. Moreover, brutal Serbian "ethnic cleansing" has stiffened the KLA and Kosovo's 2 million ethnic Albanians in their demand for independence from Yugoslavia, which NATO denied in the peace plan.
Some KLA hard-liners also continue to cherish the dream of uniting Kosovo with Albania and ethnic Albanian-dominated areas of Macedonia.
For these reasons, many experts believe any KLA disarmament may be largely symbolic, with the rebels hiding most of their weapons and covertly maintaining their formations.
Once internationally funded reconstruction is well along and the ethnic Albanians have established the democratic self-rule that NATO demands, the call for independence will be revived, backed by the threat of renewed conflict, they say.
The KLA is also basking in popular acclaim for the war it waged against Serbian troops and police for more than a year. Lauded as heroes, many units may be reluctant to disband and lose their newfound status and power. "It's my guess that they are going to want to keep that identity," says a US official.
These apprehensions appear well-founded. Rick, a British mercenary who trained a KLA unit and fought with it for months inside Kosovo, says the rebels feel "a sense of betrayal" because of NATO's rejection of their independence demand.
"They don't trust anybody," says Rick, who refused to give his surname. "They want to stay armed in case anything backfires on them. They are not going to disarm. It's euphoria right now, and everybody is bouncing around. But when this settles down, it's going to get hard."
Western officials retort that unless the KLA fully disarms, it will jeopardize the billions of dollars of international aid that Kosovo desperately requires to rebuild devastated towns and villages, factories and infrastructure.
"They will watch international support disappear overnight," warns an American official. "They can't afford not to have reconstruction."
Self-rule still the aim
The US-led alliance is pressing to preserve in negotiations at the UN the same arrangements for Kosovo self-rule that the KLA accepted in March but that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic spurned, triggering the NATO airstrikes. The so-called Rambouillet accord - which maintained Yugoslavia's sovereignty over Kosovo - called for creating a new multiethnic police force into which some KLA fighters would be inducted after training. In the interim, an international police force will be deployed that could include as many as 3,000 rebels.
For the time being in the Prizren area, NATO and the rebels are emphasizing cooperation, not confrontation.
"We have something of a vacuum at the moment, so we cooperate," says Lt. Col. Maximillian Eder, commander of the German battalion deployed in the area. He calls the arrangements a "gentlemen's agreement" with the local KLA commander, Ekrem Rexha, known as "Drini," that includes replacing an Albanian flag hoisted by the rebels with a NATO flag.
Aside from screening returning refugees for Albanian criminals seeking lucre in Kosovo, the KLA is helping to oversee the registration of household heads as the massive flow of tractors, cars, trucks, and buses streams in from Albania.
In Prizren, Kosovo's second-largest city, armed KLA patrols stroll the cobblestone streets of the centuries-old Ottoman-built center, greeted by residents showing victory signs. They stand guard at critical junctions, where German troops and tanks are deployed, and maintain control of lines of residents waiting for aid- agency handouts.