NATO Strikes Help Rebels Gain Ground
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 26, 1999; Page A1
KOSARE, YugoslaviaIn the mountain ridges and narrow gorges along the Albanian border here in Kosovo, the Kosovo Liberation Army is pushing into the Serbian province a yard and a field at a time.
Artillery and mortar shells from both sides of the border whistle across flower-carpeted valleys and hit their intended targets more by luck than skill. After sharp firefights, the dead lie for days in a no man's land before their comrades can reach them. Young Kosovo Albanian men with only a few weeks of military experience often find themselves on a shifting front line that is sometimes less than 50 yards from Serbian gun muzzles.
While KLA-held territory has been reduced to isolated pockets across Kosovo since Serb-led Yugoslav forces launched a major offensive against them in March, rebel units operating along the Albanian border in the last two months have been able to establish a narrow corridor into the province, taking advantage of NATO's nine-week-old air assault on Yugoslavia.
"We have been attacking Serbian positions from the first day" of the NATO attacks, said Hysen Berisha, the KLA commander for this region, who once served in the Yugoslav Army. The Serbs "are very damaged, but they have put down many mines. That's the reason we can't go faster."
Although this is one of the rebels' most important strongholds in Kosovo, they control only a thin and vulnerable swath of territory and have yet to occupy a village or town. Their situation here illustrates how far they are from posing a major threat by themselves to the government's hold on the province. KLA commanders freely acknowledge they cannot drive Yugoslav and Serb forces out of Kosovo without help from NATO combat ground forces.
The fighting is intense but localized, and in cemeteries from this patch of Kosovo to the town of Bajram Curi across the border in Albania, the cost of this campaign to the KLA is measured daily in fresh graves.
A month ago, after a day-long firefight, the rebels captured an isolated Yugoslav army barracks here, a mile into Kosovo, seizing five trucks, a bulldozer and crates of ammunition. It was a major step forward in the KLA's grinding war of attrition with Yugoslav troops and Serbian police and paramilitary units. Last Friday morning, a NATO bomb slammed into the two-story red-brick barracks, killing five sleeping KLA rebels and wounding 25 others. NATO apparently was unaware that the guerrillas had captured the building.
But the same bombing campaign that destroyed a section of the barracks has forced Belgrade government security forces to hunker down. They move only at night or under the cover of the ghostly clouds and mist that frequently shroud the mountain tops, using many of the same guerrilla tactics of the rebels, KLA commanders say.
The NATO airstrikes also have given the rebels openings to launch more effective artillery and mortar attacks against Yugoslav forces. In recent weeks, using Chinese-made anti-tank weapons and employing hit-and-run tactics in the wake of NATO bombing raids, the guerrillas say they have destroyed 13 tanks.
Moving toward the village of Junik, seven miles inside Kosovo, the best-equipped KLA units are trying to extend the corridor they hold into a critical resupply route for their comrades deeper inside Kosovo, who they say are desperate for food and ammunition.
"Our big problem is that we can't get supplies inside," said Burim Thaqi, 24, who abandoned studies in Madrid 11 months ago to join the rebel group. "Our soldiers are eating cats; their food supply is very low."
In addition to creating a supply route, the capture of Junik would give KLA forces a strategic foothold from which to push much deeper into Kosovo's open countryside. "We will take Junik soon," Berisha said, "and then on to Pristina," Kosovo's capital.
The border between Kosovo and Albania in this area is a fallen barbed wire fence. On the Albanian side, a couple of hundred yards from the line, a KLA base camp sits on a rise in the village of Padesh, a collection of stone farmhouses and military tents that comes under daily Yugoslav shelling. KLA mortar units hidden in thick forest covering the surrounding hills reply with their own salvos.
Uniformed rebels, some as young as 15, walk the muddy roads around the camp, automatic rifles slung over their shoulders, cigarettes hanging from their lips. The roads around the camp are in such bad condition that it is difficult to envision how NATO could assemble a Kosovo intervention force in this area without time-consuming airlifts of heavy equipment.
Most KLA rebels walk the one mile from the Albanian border to their Kosare base; some supplies are brought in on horseback. The guerrillas based here are the best-outfitted of all the KLA rebels. Their uniforms are new, if mismatched -- a Swiss camouflage shirt paired with German pants; a British tunic with U.S. Army britches; berets in rainbows of red, black or U.N. blue, World War II-style metal helmets and outback slouch hats in greens and browns.
"We get our uniforms from all over the world," said Bashki Belegu, 26, who ran a pizza shop in the Kosovo city of Pec before joining the KLA in Albania two months ago. "Many of us buy them ourselves."
When the KLA seized the Kosare barracks, it also captured a trove of ammunition. "We killed them with their own bullets," Belegu said. But the rebels said that while they have plenty of ammunition, they have too few weapons for the several hundred guerrillas fighting in this area, including recruits who continue to stream in from around the world. Most of the guerrillas have bound the clips of their assault rifles with tape to keep them from falling apart.
From the barracks, the rebels walk well-worn paths to the front line, cutting across fields of yellow and lavender flowers, pocked by fresh shell holes left by Yugoslav mortar rounds. They sprint through gorges where Yugoslav troops shoot at them, then slow to catch their breath when they round a mountainside held by their KLA comrades.
Thaqi wears a brass dog-tag he made himself, scratching his name, birthday and hometown on the crudely fashioned metal.
The guerrillas here -- few of whom were KLA members before the NATO bombing began -- return to the barracks from the front lines every day or two for a respite and a chance to eat bean-and-meat stew cooked on the mobile kitchen captured along with the barracks.
For the past month, the barracks, hidden in a hollow, has been one of the few rebel refuges from Yugoslav fire. But at 7:20 a.m. Friday, a NATO bomb smashed into the back of the building. Inside the remains of the building, rows of bunk beds are covered with shards of glass and other debris.
About 80 men were asleep or eating when the building came down around them in a fireball. "I thought I was going to die," said Faton Hajdini, 23, who comes from Vucitrn, northwest of Pristina. "Thank God it didn't hit where I was sleeping."
Berisha, the commander, who had come to the barracks for an inspection shortly before the bomb hit, said a door blew on top of him. "I heard soldiers shouting help," said Berisha, a swaggering, blue-bereted soldier who backslaps his men as he moves among them, cracking jokes.
For days after the attack, the KLA was wary of the NATO planes that roar over their positions almost every day. Hajdini said one fighter plane flew low over the barracks Saturday. "We were afraid," he said. "That was hell."
KLA commanders, who have hosted foreign journalists in the barracks in recent weeks, could not explain the NATO error. "We were on [the] news," said one mystified rebel. But they insisted that despite the bombing, NATO's air campaign in the border region has been their best ally, critical to the advancement of their positions. And looking at the damage, the guerrillas exhibited a kind of pride in NATO's firepower -- even though it had rained down on them.
"It was a technical error," said Berisha, as he stood beside the ruins. "Our opinion of NATO and the U.S. is the same. . . . We are one young army. We need NATO." After a little hesitation, he said that without NATO ground troops, the KLA cannot hope to win its war against government forces.
On an exposed hill of grass and wild flowers overlooking the Kosovo farmland, five mounds of red clay mark the fresh graves of fallen KLA rebels. As Esat Krasniqi, commander of the Kosare base, approached the plots, three young guerrillas stood guard, facing a nearby ridge controlled by Yugoslav forces. In a thicket of trees, just across a rushing stream, another group of rebels watched both the ridge and the lowlands, which Yugoslav troops dart across in the early evening fog. The sharp detonations of outgoing mortar shells followed by the explosive thuds of incoming Yugoslav shells pierced the valley's natural silence.
Krasniqi -- bearded, gnarled and weary-looking -- moved unperturbed between the graves, looking at the names written in black ink on hand-cut wooden markers -- Xhemshir Islami from Srbica in central Kosovo; Mentur Isa from Podujevo in northern Kosovo; and Faik Qabrati, Januz Krasniqi and Hami Misin, all from the southern Kosovo city of Prizren.
"These are the victims of NATO," Krasniqi said, adding, after a pause, "these things happen in a war. There are mistakes."
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