World

At the Front with the KLA

In the Mountains of the Damned along Albania s border with Kosovo, well-equipped guerrillas battle the Serbian army

Barry Came June 7 1999
World

At the Front with the KLA

In the Mountains of the Damned along Albania s border with Kosovo, well-equipped guerrillas battle the Serbian army

Barry Came June 7 1999

At the Front with the KLA

World

In the Mountains of the Damned along Albania s border with Kosovo, well-equipped guerrillas battle the Serbian army

Barry Came

in Kukes

The komandant is bone tired, so exhausted by the rigours of battle that he can barely hold himself erect. He is a short burly man, dressed in the red-flecked camouflage fatigues of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Like many field commanders in the KLA's security-obsessed world, he declines to offer his name, or any scrap of information about his identity. “Journalists can sometimes be as dangerous as Serbs,” he remarks, cocking a suspicious eye at a visitor. But he is a familiar figure along northern Albania’s lawless border with Kosovo, in the rugged highlands so aptly named the Mountains of the Damned. For he is one of the KLA’s senior commanders in the region. And last week the komandant was busy. “I am a soldier,” he says, signalling the end of conversation by struggling to his feet on steel crutches, the result, others say, of a Serbian sniper’s well-aimed bullet. “A soldier’s job is to fight,” he adds. “Not to waste time giving interviews.”

Judging by the evidence, he has not been wasting much time of late. As the visitor was ushered out of the komandanís

headquarters in the northern Albanian town of Kukes last Wednesday, more than a thousand of his troops were engaged in an offensive 15 km away. They had advanced at dawn, striking from the hilltop hamlet of Pogaj in Albania across the border towards Planeja in the highlands north of the Drini River in Kosovo, apparently aiming to open a supply corridor to beleaguered KLA forces ensconced in the hills above the western Kosovo city of Prizren. By mid-morning, the KLA had overrun six Serbian positions on the border, only to stall in the face of intense shelling from Serbian tanks and artillery. By noon, however, NATO aircraft had entered the fray, silencing the Serbian forces with repeated high-altitude missile and bomb attacks. As of late last week, the KLA was inching towards Planeja, apparendy having failed to achieve the primary objective of quickly opening a supply corridor.

It was, nevertheless, a triumph of sorts, one of the many telltale signs that are beginning to emerge about a possible change in the KLA’s fortunes. After being soundly thrashed over the past two months, the once-ragtag band of lightly equipped and poorly trained irregulars is suddenly recording battlefield

gains. If the trend continues, it may well indicate the KLA is on the verge of gaining some ascendancy over the combined forces in Kosovo of the regular Yugoslav army and its allies in the paramilitary police and armed militias. It is, no doubt, primarily the result of NATO s ongoing air assault, which is not only slowly shredding President Slobodan Milosevics military machine in the province, but also pinning down the Yugoslav forces, preventing the massed array of troops and armour that devastated the KLA in the wars early stages.

Official denials notwithstanding, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that both NATO and the Albanian government are quiedy co-operating with the KLA, trading intelligence, assisting in recruitment and training, and overlooking arms shipments that violate an international embargo. “We have no institutional connections with the KLA,” declared army Capt. Albert Mullai of the Albanian defence ministry. “But at the same time, it is true that we are turning a blind eye to a lot of activities that clearly assist the KLAs war effort.”

If pressed in private, NATO officials will concede the same. Despite the tacit military support, however, much of the credit for the KLAs brightening prospects must rest within the organization itself. True, the KLAs political leadership remains badly divided, between those who support the socalled official Kosovo government of moderate—and elected—president Ibrahim Rugova, and backers of the more hardline HashimThaci, the 33-year-old self-appointed prime minister of what he and his entourage have been labelling Kosovo’s interim government.

On the military front, however, great strides have been taken ever since the appointment last month of batde-tested Croatian army Gen. Agim Ceku as the KLA’s chief of staff. A Kosovo Albanian, Ceku has managed to impose a measure of military discipline, weeding out some of the more free-wheeling local commanders, importing other experienced ethnic Albanian officers from elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia, as well as from as far afield as France, Holland and the United

States. “He’s installed an ambitious command and control structure,” says Mullai, who monitors the KLA for the Albanian defence ministry. “There’s now an officer corps, most of whom are graduates of the Yugoslav military academy. Not only do they know how the Yugoslav army works, they often are personally acquainted with the enemy commander.”

For NATO, this is a double-edged sword. Ceku’s officers now claim to have 30,000 troops under their command in the field. While they may be lightly armed and rudimentarily trained, they are nevertheless a significant force, not much less than Milosevic’s 40,000 troops in Kosovo or the 50,000 troops NATO announced last week it intended to marshal on the province’s borders. What is more, most have been blooded in battle, a development that is likely to make them hostile to any political solution for Kosovo short of autonomy, if not outright independence.

Last week, though, the chances of a negotiated end to the conflict looked remote, especially after the historic indictment of Milosevic for war crimes by Canada’s Louise Arbour, chief prosecutor at the UN international criminal tribunal in The Hague. The four counts were the first ever levelled at a sitting head of state and, while Milosevic may never be arrested, they were clearly going to make dealing with him more difficult. That in turn raises the odds of a NATO ground invasion. In that event, the alliance’s forces may find themselves having to forcibly disarm the KLA, or maverick elements within it, in order to impose a settlement. “None of us would welcome that prospect,” confesses a Western ambassador in Tirana, the Albanian capital. “Which is the principal reason we have chosen to keep our distance from the KLA, in public at least.”

Behind the scenes, the story is different. And nowhere is that more evident than up in the Mountains of the Damned. They stretch along the Albanian-Kosovo border from Macedonia in the south to Montenegro in the north, seven gruelling hours from Tirana by road. It winds through spellbinding scenery: rushing streams, alpine meadows, pine forests, red-roofed villages and endless vistas of mountain peaks. At the end of the road sits Kukes, a rowdy, ramshackle town scattered along fjord-like fingers of an emerald lake. The town is filled to overflowing with Kosovar refugees, hordes of journalists

and battalions of aid workers in tidy, white four-wheel-drive vehicles. There are soldiers everywhere, from everywhere— NATO troops with national flags on their shoulder patches, Albanians in ill-fitting Chinese-style olive drab, even a lonely detachment from the United Arab Emirates in incongruous desert camouflage.

Kukes is the headquarters of the Kosovo Liberation Army, where they call themselves Oo-Chi-Ka, from their Albanianlanguage name, Ushtria Clirimtare e Kosoves. They make no attempt to keep a low profile in Kukes. There is a media office in the town’s only hotel, hooked up to e-mail and the Internet. Not far away, beyond the chaotic bazaar in an abandoned factory, sits the KLA’s primary training facility, where recruits receive their initial indoctrination. It has in recent weeks been stricdy off-limits to prying media eyes, possibly to hide the identity of the specialists doing the training behind cinder-brick walls and barbed-wire fencing.

Into Kukes flow the arms that keep the KLA in batde. Western governments have resisted KLA pleas to lift the embargo imposed almost a decade ago on all arms sales to Yugoslavia. “If we had unrestricted access to Western arms,” maintains Jakup Krasnici, theThaci government’s information minister, “we could put 60,000 men in uniform.” There has, however, been no attempt to curb the KLA’s purchases on the black market. Mortars, submachine-guns and sniper rifles continually arrive in Kukes from the former Yugoslav republics of

Arbour’s four-count indictment of Milosevic

The four charges laid by Canadian chief prosecutor Louise Arbour against Jugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and four senior officials at the international warcrimes tribunal in The Hague, covering events since the beginning of this year:

+ DEPORTATION of 740,000 Kosovo Albanians, a crime against humanity

► MURDER [two counts] of “hundreds” of Kosovo Albanian civilians, including 342 named people; one as a crime against humanity, a second as a violation of the customs of war

► PERSECUTION of Kosovo Albanians on political, racial and religious grounds, a crime against humanity

With a new chief of staff and a disciplined officer corps, the 30,000-strong KLA is no longer a ragtag band

Bosnia and Croatia, as well as from Albanian émigré communities in Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Similar communities in Western Europe, the United States and Canada send uniforms, boots, field rations, radio communications gear and satellite telephones. Albanian army trucks have been seen carrying shipments from the coast of Chinese-manufactured AK-47s, anti-tank guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

The KLA’s critics, particularly overseas Serbian communities in Europe and North America, claim that much of the organizations war effort is funded by links with Albania’s notorious drug traffickers and racketeers. Last year, U.S. authorities branded the KLA an international terrorist organization, alleging it bankrolled its operations with proceeds from the global heroin trade and with loans from known terrorists such as Afghan-based Muslim extremist Osama bin Laden. Hashim Thaci, in Albania last week on the eve of an official visit to the United States, airily dismissed such charges.

“They also claim we’re Marxist-Leninists,” he said. “Now that would be quite a trick if we get support from the Mafia, the Marxists and Osama bin Laden all at the same time.”

Other seasoned KLA observers also tend to view allegations about links with the underworld with some skepticism. One is retired Canadian army colonel Georges Bordet, now chief of staff in Albania for the Kosovo Verification Mission run by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Bordet spent three months with the OSCE mission inside Kosovo, working in almost daily contact with KLA units, before moving to Albania when the KVM monitors left the province. “In my experience both here and in Kosovo, I found the KLA to be a pretty clean-living, austere bunch of guys,” he says. “As a matter of fact, I seem to recall it was the Serbs who were drunk all the time, especially the paramilitaries.”

Whatever the source of the KLA’s financing, the Oo-ChiKas in northern Albania do not seem to be short of any arms except heavy weaponry, the kind of mediumto long-range artillery required to take on and defeat tanks and armour. The war they are fighting remains largely unseen, conducted in classic guerrilla fashion in some of the most inaccessible terrain in Europe.

It is wild country, stretching along the Kosovo border north from Kukes to Tropoja on the Montenegrin frontier. It is also lawless, infested with a local clan-structured population given to banditry and murderous blood feuds. The chief of police in the far northern town of Bajram Curri recently appeared in public wearing a bulletproof vest previously stolen at gun-

point from a visiting BBC television crew. Even the KLA travels the area in strength. They advise journalists to do the same for reasons euphemistically described by the KLA’s Kukes spokesman, Kadri Kryeziu, as “a certain lack of public order.”

That makes it impossible to independently confirm some of the recent KLA claims of battlefield victories—the killing of dozens ofYugoslav troops around the village of Pradesh, or the rout of Serbian units near the city of Suva Reka.

The KLA’s attempt to mount an offensive into Kosovo from hilltop Pogaj did, however, provide a rare glimpse of the kind of warfare that Kosovar irregulars and their Serbian adversaries are waging. The action took place in sight of the main Albanian-Kosovo border crossing, 15 km east of Kukes at the town of Morina. From 5 a.m. on May 26, the hills above Morina reverberated with the rattle of small-arms fire, punctuated

with an occasional explosion. The action moved steadily eastward along a cross-border ridge until Serbian artillery opened fire from a hilltop farther south. The heavy guns’ reports echoed across the hills, followed by an explosive crump and billowing clouds of debris on top of the ridge. Not long after, NATO’s jets entered the action, heard but not seen high in the cloudless sky. Vapour trails appeared as the aircraft launched their ordnance, and moments later, white clouds and bright flames mushroomed along the Kosovo hilltops. The jets struck for close to an hour, perhaps two dozen sorties in all. For the public record, NATO may be maintaining a discreet distance from the Kosovo Liberation Army. But in the Mountains of the Damned, something else is happening.

Off to the Balkans

After NATO agreed to raise its presence in the Balkans from 28,000 to 50,000 troops, government sources in Ottawa hinted Canada is prepared to double its current contribution of800. Those already committed, mostly from the Edmonton-based Lord Strathcona’s Horse Regiment, were crossing Canada last week ahead of an early June departure for Europe. But if the force is doubled, warned military chief Gen. Maurice Baril, Canada’s overworked soldiers—also stationed in Bosnia, the Golan Heights and 11 other overseas locales— face the prospect of burnout. Not addressed in Ottawa was whether the ground troops would be asked to fight their way into Kosovo, the question that still bedevils NATO.