The KLA disarms - reluctantly

Most units are cooperating, but some say they will defy NATO agreement.

If this ethnic Albanian hamlet were Kosovo in microcosm, governments from Washington to Moscow would be greatly heartened as their peacekeeping troops strive to contain tensions.

On Friday afternoon, some 200 local Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) rebels, most already in civilian dress, gathered in the dusty schoolyard of this devastated village to hear an officer read the accord requiring them to disarm and disband. With a chorus of "victory," they dispersed, and those with weapons began passing them through a window into the principal's office, where serial numbers were logged. Within days, officers say, all the weapons will be taken to a NATO-guarded armory.

With Kosovar Albanians eager to rebuild shattered lives, most KLA units are expected to be just as cooperative as its 123rd Brigade's 3rd Battalion. But other fighters say they will defy the June 21 demilitarization accord, reflecting deep distrust of NATO and confirming alliance concerns about serious challenges it may face from KLA hard-liners.

"I have three Kalashnikovs," says Hafir Galapeni, a KLA platoon leader from Doberdeljani, a village near Kasterce in central Kosovo. "I will surrender one, and two I will hide." He says his 18 men will do the same, stashing their weapons in wells or burying them in fields and the surrounding hills.

Florim Krasniqi, a top US-based KLA operative who organized funds, arms, and recruits, says many units will not disarm. He quotes Ramush Haradinaj, the KLA commander of western Kosovo, as telling him by telephone that "we will give them [NATO] junk, but we are going to keep our good weapons." Warns Mr. Krasniqi: "If NATO tries to disarm Albanians altogether, we are heading for trouble."

A rebel who was attached for a time to KLA headquarters when it was in Albania during the war says arms have been stashed in Albania and Kosovo. "Of course they are going to hide weapons," he says. "They've hidden a lot on this side [in Kosovo]. They've hidden a lot on the other. They've hidden American sniper rifles on the other side. They don't want to give those up. It's the local commanders who are hiding them. I don't think it's coming from Hashim Thaci."

Assured compliance

Eager to secure international reconstruction aid, Mr. Thaci, head of a KLA provisional government, insists the rebels will comply with the accord requiring them to place their weapons in NATO-guarded storage sites by July 20 and disband as a military organization by Sept. 18. He also guarantees the security of minority Serbs as outlined by the peace plan forced on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic by NATO's 78-day air campaign.

The KLA, Thaci says, will transform into a self-defense contingent modeled after the United States National Guard, with a small core of full-time officers overseeing a force of part-time reservists. While NATO has not accepted the plan, it is confident Thaci will deliver on KLA demilitarization. "I think we are rather optimistic," says German Gen. Klaus Olshausen, deputy commander of the KFOR peacekeeping force.

At the same time, he makes it clear that while KFOR has become more aggressive at confiscating weapons intercepted at checkpoints, a more robust search-and-seizure effort will wait until the end of the period for storing arms.

"We will look at this very carefully, and as we have the storage sites set up and filled, we will have to make an assessment," General Olshausen says.

Many KLA officers and fighters say they will obey Thaci's decision to sign the demilitarization accord. Vebi Krasniqi, a former Yugoslav Army officer who commands the 3rd Battalion in Kasterce, framed the demilitarization accord for his men in a palatable way: "You are not disarming. They [weapons] must be stored, but they are still yours." Says his deputy, Shacir Gashi: "Everyone wants to lay down their weapons and go home to live their lives."

On the surface that appears largely so. While some rebels continue to wear uniforms in public in violation of the accord, the numbers are nowhere near where they were a week ago.

But privately Western officials doubt Thaci holds sway over all his commanders, saying they know many KLA fighters are not disarming. "The majority of the UCK will hand in their weapons," says one Western official, using the rebels' Albanian-language acronym. "But definitely there will be a significant number of hard-liners who won't." He says "breakaway groups are starting to form up again" as the unity the war created breaks down.

Hard-liners are wedded to the dream of an independent Kosovo, the goal for which the KLA fought and the majority ethnic Albanians remain determined to win. But the peace plan has kept the province, cherished by Serbs as their historic homeland, part of Yugoslavia, and there is no international support for its secession.

Objections to living with Serbs

Few ethnic Albanians interviewed worry that the independence issue could lead to confrontations between KLA hard-liners and NATO troops, who are acclaimed as the province's liberators. Instead, the refusal to disarm appears rooted in vehement objections to NATO's insistence that the ethnic Albanians continue living with Kosovo's 150,000 Serbs.

After bearing a decade of iron-fisted Serbian rule and Europe's most brutal ethnic assault since World War II, that is something virtually all seem to believe is impossible.

Rebels who say they will keep their arms insist that Serbian troops, police, and civilians who participated in the assault are among the Serbs still in Kosovo. They also say that many of the estimated 50,000 Serbs who fled as Serbian forces withdrew will return under NATO protection and retrieve arms they hid before leaving.

Another reason rebels give for keeping their arms is the participation in the peacekeeping plan of Russia, Belgrade's main international sympathizer. Many ethnic Albanians believe that Serbian officers disguised as Russian soldiers will slip back into the province with Moscow's 3,500 troops, which began arriving over the weekend.

There is also widespread hatred for Russia because of its support for Mr. Milosevic. "If the Russians make obstacles for us, we will fight them," says Mr. Galapeni, the KLA platoon leader. "Serbs and Russians are the same. They are Slavs."

Even rebels who intend to disarm say they want Kosovo's Serbs gone, charging all participated or supported the "ethnic cleansing" that drove about 700,000 ethnic Albanians into Albania and Macedonia. "The local Serbs are the biggest murderers," says Haxh, a rebel in the devastated town of Pec.

That view is reflected in the growing violence KFOR is confronting. More than a dozen Serbs were murdered in the capital, Pristina, last week, while scores of abandoned Serbian homes are being looted, torched, or seized daily across Kosovo as returning ethnic Albanian refugees avenge the destruction of their villages and towns.

Human Rights Watch, a US-based human rights group, says it has "telling evidence" that KLA soldiers have murdered and abducted Serbs in several western towns, although it adds there is no proof the abuses are official policy. On Saturday, Thaci was taken by NATO to the divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica to defuse a potential clash between Serbs and ethnic Albanians.

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