Kosovo Liberation Army rebels turned hundreds of automatic rifles and other weapons over to NATO before a midnight deadline tonight, and allied officials said they were satisfied that the group is complying with last week's agreement calling for its eventual demilitarization.
The ethnic Albanian rebels, who battled Serb-led Yugoslav forces for more than a year to try to win Kosovo's independence, were required under the June 21 agreement with NATO to cease immediately all "hostile acts," including the firing of weapons, destruction of buildings and establishment of checkpoints.
The pact demanded that the group not "attack, detain or intimidate any civilians in Kosovo" -- a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic -- or confiscate private property. It also barred any reprisals, counterattacks or military actions in response to actions by Serbs.
The rebels had pledged to withdraw by last Friday from all their wartime positions and stop moving across Kosovo's borders, a commitment that NATO officials said they had met.
By midnight tonight, the KLA was to have cleared any minefields and deposit a third of its automatic rifles and pistols in 20 "assembly areas" subject to NATO inspection. Its remaining armed members are to stay within these areas, which amount to a few buildings in some cases and areas encompassing several villages in other cases, a senior NATO official said.
The official said that the KLA's record of compliance thus far was good. He said there was "no evidence of KLA involvement" in a handful of killings and abductions of Serbs in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, or any other concerted effort to violate the agreement. NATO soldiers have reported that the KLA members they encounter are almost universally cooperative, although they have noted that the guerrillas' promises cannot be taken at face value.
At one checkpoint on a highway south of the town of Stimlje last week, for example, a KLA company commander traveling with his men in a flatbed cargo truck assured a detachment of Britain's Royal Irish Guards that they had no weapons. The soldiers said that they had to check each backpack anyway and found at least five hand grenades and an automatic rifle. At that point the rebel commander barked at his men: "Who's responsible? I told you not to do that."
On Sunday, another group of British NATO troops at a checkpoint west of Pristina confiscated a pistol found in the glove compartment of a van carrying Sokol Bashota, a senior KLA political leader. He complained that "everyone in the world is allowed to carry a gun for their protection," but the soldiers said they had orders to take any gun they found and gave Bashota a receipt.
Some NATO officials say that even if NATO's relations with the KLA are generally good now, some disagreements may occur in coming months as the rebels are forced to deposit all their small arms in agreed upon depots and stop wearing military uniforms or insignia. If the KLA complies fully, this would amount to a near total demobilization.
The rebel leadership is counting on the West to approve the appointment of many of its members to a new provincial police force. Also, under a provision of the accord insisted upon by the rebel group in negotiations with U.S. and British officials, the West is obligated to give "due consideration" to the possible formation of a KLA-led army "along the lines of the U.S. National Guard."
NATO members Germany and Greece objected strongly to this provision on grounds that allowing formation of such a force would be tantamount to recognizing Kosovo's independence from Serbia. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said in an interview that he was concerned "about making the wrong impression in Belgrade. . . . Democratization in Belgrade depends on our commitment" to following the terms of the overall peace accord, which leaves Kosovo's legal status as a Serbian province unchanged.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright persuaded Fischer at a dinner a week ago to withdraw the objection on the grounds that the wording does not obligate the alliance to accept the KLA demand, according to one of her top aides. KLA officials, however, have made clear that they expect a positive response.
Ramush Hajredinaj, commander of the KLA zone in southwestern Kosovo, said in a recent interview, for example, that the rebel group is eager to cooperate militarily with NATO and is prepared to shift most of its members to reserve status. But others, he said, will join a "modern army, in the style of other European armies. . . . We suppose that will be done together with NATO."
Rustem "Remi" Mustafa, the KLA commander of the zone that includes Pristina, said he expects that after three to four months, the remaining KLA members will become part of the police force and a "regular army." Its aim, he said, would be "territorial defense," the same function that NATO forces are obligated to fulfill under the June 10 peace accord with the Yugoslav government.
Correspondent Peter Finn contributed to this report.