Rebels Undertake New Drive Into Kosovo
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 28, 1999; Page A31
MORINA, Albania, May 27 – The chief rebel group fighting for the independence of Kosovo apparently has launched a new offensive into the province from Albania's northwestern border region, possibly to open a second supply corridor to its forces deeper inside Kosovo, military analysts and observers said today.
The offensive began Wednesday night and continued this afternoon around this border crossing, with members of the Kosovo Liberation Army exchanging heavy artillery and small-arms fire across the frontier with Serb-led Yugoslav army troops, the officials said.
"The KLA has launched an operation to try to open up a new corridor," a military observer said, adding that he was baffled by the rebels' choice of location because much of the Kosovo region opposite Morina is exposed and heavily defended by Yugoslav forces. "It's madness," said another observer, adding that it "displays the KLA's amateurism."
A rebel spokesman here denied that the group was trying specifically to open a new supply corridor, saying it wants to clear the Kosovo border area. He said one guerrilla had been killed and five wounded in the attack thus far and that the rebels had killed 18 Yugoslav soldiers – figures that could not be confirmed.
The rebel group launched the operation as Albania, which is sheltering nearly 440,000 ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo, began what NATO officials and other analysts said was a dangerously provocative military training exercise near the border, using live ammunition. A NATO spokesman said that top alliance officials were pleading with Albanian Prime Minister Majko Pandeli to cancel the exercise.
"We can't understand it," said a military observer here. "In this situation, doing this kind of an exercise is bound to provoke the Serbs." Officials who attended a meeting today with Albanian military officers said they were told that the exercise was meant as a warning to Yugoslavia to stop its frequent shelling of Albanian border areas – areas in which the Kosovo rebels are based.
Albanian officials said the training – involving tanks, troops and heavy artillery – would continue Friday. NATO officials said they had been promised the drills would be delayed, only to discover that they were in fact going forward when Albanian artillery fire echoed over Kukes, a northern border town that is sheltering about 100,000 Kosovo refugees.
U.N. officials said they were told by the Albanians that they were firing only blanks. But a border observer said it appeared that the Albanians might have been firing to support the rebel offensive, because it occurred just when the KLA-Yugoslav battle was most intense this morning. Albania denies aiding the KLA, but the rebel group operates training camps and cross-border supply bases here, apparently without any government interference.
In a related incident, a sound technician for a Chilean television team was shot in the head, apparently by a sniper from across the border, as he was sitting near the frontier with other journalists during the morning battle. The man, identified by The Associated Press as Abner Machuca, 30, was flown to the Albanian capital, Tirana, where he reportedly was in a coma late today.
Two Albanian border guards reportedly were seriously injured when one stepped on a land mine while patrolling the border south of Morina, in Albanian territory. Military analysts say that Yugoslav forces have heavily mined the border area to thwart rebel efforts to establish new supply lines.
The combined events prompted U.N. officials to declare a "yellow alert," restricting the world body's 400 employees here to the Kukes area and the seven refugee camps clustered around it.
"The live-ammo exercise, whether it's called off or not, has drawn a lot of military hardware here, and that creates a new situation," said Stephen Green, head of operations for the U.N. World Food Program in Kukes and a member of a local security steering group.
The murky purpose of the military exercises contributed to a sense of alarm among aid workers here that, by design or accident, events could escalate and draw Albania, which has perhaps the weakest military in Europe, into the war. Relief workers were particularly concerned that Kukes – which is just 15 miles from the border – and its refugee camps could tempt Yugoslav artillery. In fact, an Albanian artillery battery is situated amid three of the refugee camps.
"At the very least, the opportunity for misunderstanding has ripened," Green said. "We've lived a charmed life, and it's naive to think that's going to continue to be the case. There's no magic envelope around Kukes."
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