Speculation plentiful, facts few about Kosovo separatist group; KLA has already seized region near capital

Published on March 6, 1998, The Baltimore Sun

Category: Islamic Terror in Kosovo


PRISTINA, Serbia -- The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) has claimed responsibility for more than 50 attacks on Serbs and Albanians loyal to the Belgrade government, but little is known about the separatist group. The KLA made its first public appearance Nov. 28 at a funeral of Albanians killed in action against the Serbian police in the village of Lause. Three masked men brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles swore to throw out the Serbs by force. Their appearance was a blow to moderate Albanian politicians who had claimed the KLA was run by the Serbian secret service after it first became known a few months earlier. Details of the KLA, which the United States calls a terrorist organization, are sketchy at best. Western intelligence sources believe there are no more than several hundred members under arms with military training. Serbian police estimate there are at least 2,000 well-armed men. The KLA is said to rely heavily on a huge network of informers and sympathizers, enabling it to blend easily among the population. The Western sources also believe the core of the organization consists of Albanians who fled into exile in the 1970s and based their operation in Switzerland, where its funding is gathered from all over the world. "If the West wants to nip the KLA in the bud, all it has to do is crack down on its financial nerve center in Switzerland," one source said. Part of the funding, this source believes, comes from the powerful Albanian mafia organizations that deal in narcotics, prostitution and arms smuggling across Europe. The KLA has admitted having training bases in northern Albania, which the Albanian government does not condone but is powerless to stop. The group is believed to have received some of the tens of thousands of weapons looted from army garrisons in Albania last year when the country came close to armed anarchy. An unspecified number of KLA officers are suspected of having been members of the former Yugoslav People's Army and of having gained combat experience during the war in Bosnia fighting against the Serbs. The sources say the KLA is well armed with light infantry weapons, but it also has a well-developed signal network enabling it to track police movements and send reinforcements to the right place. While the KLA certainly enjoys wide support, no one is sure it could mount a concerted military action, or control more territory. Veton Surroi, editor of the Albanian-language newspaper Koha Ditore, believes it has no central command, but is split into many small units of people simply fed up with Serbian police repression. "We have kids who possess vintage pistols and call themselves the Kosovo Liberation Army," said Surroi. "The KLA has become a movement of desperate people, rather than a single organized force." But the rebellion is producing results. The Serbs already have lost control of at least one region -- 33 towns and villages in the Drenica area west of Kosovo's capital, Pristina. The Drenica area -- encompassing about 463 square miles, about 10 percent of the province's territory -- has an almost ethnically pure population of roughly 60,000 Albanians, all considered loyal to the KLA. Western diplomats believe the area always has been the bastion of Albanian separatism, resisting Belgrade's authority since World War II. The territory was a no-go area even for the purely Albanian police force in the 1970s, when the province enjoyed autonomy in the former Yugoslavia. Serbian police sources claim to know almost all KLA strongholds but to be waiting for word "from the top" to crack down. One of the reasons the green light has still not come, Western diplomats believe, is that it would be a messy operation involving politically embarrassing civilian casualties.

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