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  •   KLA Establishing Its Status

    By William Claiborne
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, May 28, 1999; Page A31

    The Pentagon reported yesterday that the Kosovo Liberation Army, although scattered into disarray by Yugoslav forces two months ago, has become better trained and more competently led and is beginning to reestablish itself in parts of the embattled Serbian province.

    Rear Adm. Thomas Wilson, the top intelligence officer for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters 15,000 to 17,000 KLA guerrillas are operating inside Kosovo, compared with only 5,000 when the NATO bombing campaign began March 24. An additional 5,000 KLA fighters are standing by or undergoing training in neighboring Albania, compared with 1,000 to 2,000 in March, he said.

    "I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility that they could reestablish control in some areas," Wilson told a Pentagon briefing. "They clearly are achieving some successes in their manpower base, their training, their leadership and their ability to supply and equip themselves as they go more force-on-force infantry-wise."

    The intelligence chief said the KLA's supply situation has improved dramatically, with more weapons coming in by way of Albania. He said recruitment both among fighting-age men who fled Kosovo and ethnic Albanian volunteers from Europe and the United States also has improved.

    Wilson said NATO warplanes are targeting Yugoslav mechanized armor and heavy weapons on the ground in part to "level the playing field" between the secessionist militia and its adversaries. But he reiterated NATO's insistence that the KLA is not a partner in the war against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's security forces.

    "They clearly are achieving some successes."

    – Rear Adm. Thomas Wilson

    Wilson cautioned that the KLA guerrillas, although benefiting greatly from the pounding that Yugoslav Army and police forces are taking from nightly allied airstrikes, still face formidable opposition from 25,000 Yugoslav soldiers inside Kosovo, 15,000 police regulars and reservists and thousands of armed paramilitaries. The Yugoslav Army has the additional advantage of having tanks and armored personnel carriers at its disposal, although its mobility has been reduced by the airstrikes and declining fuel supplies, Wilson said.

    "I'm not saying that the KLA is going to be victorious in the near term," Wilson stressed. "But with regard to the two militaries, the [KLA] has got a more motivated, and better trained and more numerous force" than it had two months ago. The guerrillas still cannot stand up against Serb tanks and APCs, but their numbers are getting closer to the numbers of Serb forces, Wilson said.

    Wilson's comments were less noteworthy for their particulars than for the fact that a senior military intelligence officer chose at this time to recast the official U.S. portrayal of the KLA, which in March was characterized in Pentagon briefings as all but finished as a fighting force. Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said Wilson was not trying to imply a new relationship with the KLA, from which NATO has tried to maintain a public distance because of the guerrilla force's goal of independence from Serbia as opposed to the autonomy favored by the allies.

    "He just stated the obvious, which is that after 64 days of pounding, the [Serb forces] have been diminished in their capability," Bacon said. "Our goal has never been to empower the KLA to create more fighting. Our goal has been to end fighting in Kosovo."

    Calling the KLA a "resurgent group," Wilson said the guerrillas have recently become more aggressive in their patrols, particularly in western Kosovo, where a month ago they captured a Yugoslav Army barracks in Kosare, about a mile north of the Albanian border.

    Last Friday, NATO warplanes, apparently unaware that the building had changed hands, bombed it, killing five sleeping rebels and injuring 25.

    When asked what was the most successful KLA military operation in the past week, Wilson said he could provide no details, but that rebel fighters overran an Army unit and captured a large supply of ammunition and weapons, including what he said were some heavy weapons.

    "It's those kinds of things that are successful – cut off an artillery unit so they can't be effectively used in an operation," Wilson said. "We've had reports of some small number of Serb patrols or units which are retreating or running as opposed to fighting."

    But the intelligence chief had no estimate of casualties among Serb security forces and no explanation – other than the Serbs' reduced mobility – of why, if there are as many as 17,000 KLA fighters standing against 25,000 Yugoslav Army troops in Kosovo, there have not been more engagements of the two forces than have been reported.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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