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  • KLA Chief Appeals to Serbs to Return

    By Molly Moore
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Tuesday, June 22, 1999; Page A12

    PRISTINA, Yugoslavia, June 21 – The political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army said today the ethnic Albanian rebels were committed to building "a modern civil society" in the Serbian province and appealed to fleeing Serbs to return to live in "a democratic Kosovo" as long as they have not committed any crimes.

    Hashim Thaqi, a onetime rebel commander who was named head of a provisional ethnic Albanian government in Kosovo this spring, made his first official appearance in this provincial capital since the end of the war, symbolizing the shift in the balance of power in Kosovo one day after the last Yugoslav troops pulled out.

    "Today a new era will start in Kosovo," Thaqi said at a news conference this morning after signing a demilitarization plan with NATO commanders that calls on the guerrillas to give up most of their weapons and reduce their military profile. "We are not interested in building a criminal society, but a modern civil society."

    In recent days, while the plan has been negotiated, KLA members have detained and beaten Yugoslav citizens they accused of assisting Yugoslav forces in atrocities against ethnic Albanians and routinely have intimidated Serbian civilians, contributing to an exodus of tens of thousands of Serbs from Kosovo. But Thaqi asked Serbs to come back.

    "The phenomenon of Serbs leaving is [a] phenomenon that is upsetting to us," Thaqi said. "We ask all the Serbs who left and haven't done any crimes to come here and live in a democratic Kosovo."

    With NATO peacekeepers continuing to fan out in a province now devoid of Yugoslav army and Serbian police forces, allied troops suffered their first casualties of the 10-day-old peacekeeping mission. Two British soldiers from the 69th Gurkha Field Squadron were killed this afternoon by an explosive device while they were investigating a schoolyard in the village of Negrovce, 20 miles west of Pristina. Two civilians also died in the blast, and a third was injured, NATO said.

    NATO officials have said Kosovo was heavily mined and booby-trapped by both Yugoslav and KLA forces during the 78-day NATO air war against Yugoslavia.

    KLA officials today began providing NATO commanders with maps of their minefields as part of the demilitarization plan. Yugoslav forces turned over details of their minefields in the first days of their withdrawal, which concluded on Sunday when the last of 40,000 troops once deployed here left Kosovo.

    The conclusion of the Yugoslav withdrawal prompted NATO on Sunday to officially end its air campaign against Yugoslavia, and today the Serb-led government in Belgrade announced it would ask parliament to end the state of war it imposed on March 24.

    In Washington, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen today ordered the return to the United States and Europe of more than 300 of the 730 U.S. aircraft that participated in the NATO air campaign.

    Under the KLA demilitarization plan, the rebel leaders agreed to turn in all of their heavy weaponry to NATO authorities for storage within the next 30 days, to give up all small arms, except pistols and hunting rifles, within 90 days, and to "refrain from all hostile or provocative acts."

    Even as NATO and the guerrilla leadership announced the details of the plan, however, it was clear that disarming the rebels will be difficult to monitor and verify. In addition to the problems of checking whether all KLA weapons are turned in, the plan is certain to meet opposition within the rebel ranks, who suffered heavy casualties in their bitter 18-month secessionist war against Serbian forces.

    Many rebels may be unwilling to abandon the group's military role – let alone their arms – without being assured they will ultimately achieve their goal of Kosovo's independence from Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. NATO favors autonomy for Kosovo within Serbia.

    The demilitarization guidelines include provisions – such as the possible creation of an internal army that rebel officials compare to the U.S. National Guard – that make NATO and U.N. officials here uneasy. And the rules for disarming KLA members conflict with the practice by some NATO peacekeepers here, particularly U.S. forces, of confiscating all rebel weapons.

    Demilitarization of the KLA is a central objective of NATO as it seeks to end the violence in the province, and was a provision of the U.N.-backed peace plan that led to the withdrawal of 40,000 Yugoslav and Serbian forces from Kosovo and the introduction of the NATO-led peacekeeping force.

    Thaqi's decision to back the plan prompted a congratulatory telephone call this morning from President Clinton. According to a senior U.S. official, Thaqi impressed the president by speaking about the need for ethnic harmony in Kosovo and his opposition to reprisal attacks by ethnic Albanians against Serbs.

    On Sunday, a patrol of French NATO forces stood by while ethnic Albanian villagers looted and burned the Serb village of Grace in northern Kosovo the night after its Serbian inhabitants fled. The NATO troops took no action to stop the pillaging until reinforcements arrived.

    "It was an incident I regret," Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson, the British commander of the NATO force, said today. "We fell short of what I wanted."

    Today, NATO forces escorted a caravan of about 2,000 Serbs who had fled Kosovo back into the province. Yugoslav officials have asked Serbs who left the province after the Yugoslav army's departure to return to Kosovo.

    The six-page KLA demilitarization plan is to be phased in over the next three months. Effective immediately, KLA members are not to carry weapons "of any type" within a mile of Yugoslav force assembly areas, main roads and towns or external Kosovo borders.

    The KLA has agreed, within the next four days, to "close all fighting positions, entrenchment and checkpoints on roads, and mark their minefields and booby traps."

    Within seven days, KLA forces are required to establish "secure weapons storage sites" which will be verified by NATO officials. Over the next three months, KLA members must turn in all weapons except pistols and hunting rifles to those sites.

    At the end, the KLA proposes the "formation of an army in Kosovo along the lines of the U.S. National Guard," a suggestion U.S. officials found unsettling.

    When asked to address the proposal, Rubin called it "an expression of the aspirations of the KLA," and added, "This is a decision for the future."

    Correspondent R. Jeffrey Smith in Skopje, Macedonia, contributed to this report.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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