Kosovo rebels engaged in a major offensive have received their first known NATO air support in an unsuccessful bid to seize Serbian territory along the Albanian border, according to U.S. intelligence and military officials.
Operation Arrow, involving up to 4,000 Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas, was launched last week to drive into Kosovo from two points across its southwestern border with Albania in hopes of capturing control of the highway linking Prizren and Pec, according to KLA fighters in Albania and military officials in Washington. The offensive -- the rebels' first major assault in a year -- also was meant to show NATO and Yugoslavia that they are "still in the fight," according to a senior U.S. intelligence official.
The assault was foiled, however, by heavy Yugoslav artillery and agile counterattacks by Yugoslav troops, the officials reported. The outcome showed that the Yugoslav military in Kosovo -- a rebellious province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic -- remains capable of major military action despite NATO assertions that after 70 days of bombing, troops are suffering from fuel shortages, equipment losses and plummeting morale.
NATO and the Clinton administration have denied helping the KLA directly and have asserted they want the secessionist force disarmed as part of an eventual peace settlement with President Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslav government. But U.S. intelligence officials said NATO responded last week to "urgent" KLA pleas for air support to rebuff a Serb counterattack on Mount Pastrik just inside Kosovo.
In addition, NATO planes hit targets in or near the villages of Bucane and Ljumbarda, which the officials said enabled the rebel forces to capture the villages.
The bombings marked the first known air support by NATO aircraft for the Kosovo rebels. It was unclear whether the attacks represented the only such direct air support, which a senior Yugoslav military officer said last week is routine. In any case, the KLA benefits from daily attacks by NATO along the border.
NATO military officials explained that the week's rebel activity provoked a massing of Yugoslav forces that is increasingly rare and provided NATO warplanes with what a spokesman at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Gen. Walter Jertz, called a "target-rich environment." NATO warplanes destroyed 84 pieces of military equipment yesterday, he said, including tanks, artillery pieces, multiple rocket launchers and armored personnel carriers.
Jertz and officials at the Pentagon, however, denied any direct link between the actions of NATO warplanes and rebel forces.
Asked if NATO and the KLA are coordinating strategies, a KLA official in Tirana, Albania, said that was an "operational detail" he could not divulge. But the official, Visa Reka, added, "I wouldn't say coordination. I would say that NATO is following with much more care and interest what is happening."
KLA and NATO forces in the region are in routine, but limited, telephone contact. NATO also routinely eavesdrops on rebel activity using equipment such as satellites and ground monitoring stations.
A senior U.S. military official said the KLA keeps NATO informed about its positions. For one thing, the KLA wants to make sure NATO does not bomb its forces, which it did by accident two weeks ago in an attack on a barracks in Kosari.
NATO jets operating along the border accidentally bombed government bunkers in northern Albania yesterday, injuring a Kosovo refugee. The aircraft, some of them A-10 Warthog ground attack jets, were attempting to bomb Yugoslav positions just inside Kosovo when they dropped seven bombs on a line of concrete Albanian military bunkers, according to a border monitor for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Several weeks into the air war, U.S. intelligence sources said the KLA was near death. Since then, Pentagon officials and others have pointed out that the rebel force is growing -- with up to 17,000 men -- largely by finding recruits in the radicalized refugee camps inside Albania. It is also receiving new supplies of weapons from the outside, some of which are coming through a Turkish shipping company, according to U.S. intelligence reports.
But as Operation Arrow has shown this week, the guerrilla force is far from being able to present a significant challenge.
More than a month ago, the KLA established a foothold in Kosare, just over the border from Pedash in Albania. The offensive launched last week, which is still underway, was meant to open up a second corridor near the Morina border post to the southeast, where 430,000 refugees have crossed in the last nine weeks.
The offensive began at midweek from the Albanian village of Krumi, with a diversionary rebel incursion nearby, east of Klina. Within a day or two Serb forces had sapped rebel momentum by pinning the guerrillas down and isolating them on the upper slopes of Mount Pastrik.
While the bombing has weakened Yugoslav forces, they moved quickly to build three temporary bridges over the Beli Drim River and were given orders to fire at "anything that moved," according to one report reaching U.S. intelligence officials. After several days of heavy artillery and mortar fire on Mount Pastrik, the KLA was "creamed," said a senior U.S. intelligence official.
"Once they fixate on a piece of territory, then the Yugoslav Army brings in its tanks and its artillery, which they cannot counter," said the senior U.S. intelligence official. "And that's exactly what happened over the last few days."
Priest reported from Washington, Finn from Tirana, Albania. Staff writer Vernon Loeb in Washington also contributed to this report.