With the deadline for disbanding the Kosovo Liberation Army as a military force fast approaching, NATO and the United Nations have agreed to convert part of the ethnic Albanian guerrilla group into a brigade of civil emergency and rescue workers.
Under the agreement, the members will wear uniforms and maintain sidearms, but their job would center on providing relief from natural disasters, medical care and emergency rescue, a spokesman for the NATO-led peacekeeping force said today. "The goal is to disarm the KLA and turn it into something that is not a military force, but rather a civilian agency," said the spokesman, Canadian Maj. Roland Lavoie.
The creation of the civil brigade would give partial shape to the imprecise goal of the KLA's demilitarization, as spelled out in the agreement between NATO and Yugoslavia that ended the Kosovo conflict in June, and one made later between NATO and the KLA. The Belgrade government is concerned that the demilitarization agreement will fall short of completely disarming the guerrillas, who fought an 18-month war aimed at winning Kosovo's independence from Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. Although Kosovo nominally remains a Serbian province, the rebels have declared themselves the core of a future Kosovo national army.
The KLA has had difficulty coming to grips with demilitarization, and its leaders have asked for a 10-day extension of the Sept. 19 deadline for completing the handover of its weapons. KLA officials clearly have in mind preserving the armed nucleus in whatever transformation takes place. "I'm sure Kosovo will have its own defense force," Agim Ceku, the KLA's chief of staff, told reporters Tuesday. Ceku said he foresees a 5,000-member force similar to the U.S. National Guard.
However, speaking of the planned Kosovo brigade today, Lavoie said, "This is not a national guard."
Ceku's comments followed a meeting with the commander of NATO forces here, British Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson. At the meeting, Ceku requested the delay in demilitarization on the grounds that the removal of uniformed guerrillas from the streets would create a security vacuum. He also said the KLA needed more time.
NATO is considering the request, but is reluctant to extend the deadline. "We have to be clear about what can be achieved with another 10 days," Lavoie said.
Ceku and Kosovo's self-styled prime minister, Hashim Thaqi, the KLA political leader, also met with KLA commanders Tuesday to discuss the force's future role. On Wednesday, they left on a trip to European capitals to discuss demilitarization and the inclusion of demobilized KLA fighters in a Kosovo police force.
The precise number of KLA forces is in dispute, with estimates as high as 40,000. In the wake of the retreat of the Yugoslav army and Serbian police from Kosovo, battle-hardened guerrillas emerged from the mountains and from refuge in Albania, and youths with shiny new camouflaged uniforms took to the streets of towns and hamlets throughout the province.
Aside from desires to maintain a military profile, the KLA leaders face a problem meeting the expectations among demobilized troops for a livelihood. Work is in short supply for the largely rural Kosovo population. Crime is rife, especially robberies of homes abandoned by Serbs who have fled Kosovo to Serbia proper. NATO peacekeepers are struggling with a rash of murders and kidnappings.
The remaining Serbian enclaves are increasingly closed off from the rest of Kosovo. Today, Serbian residents of the town of Gracanica complained that NATO has failed to resolve four kidnappings. The local NATO commander assured them the cases were being probed, and said that his investigators were relying on KLA informants to help. The mistrustful crowd erupted in derisive laughter, arguing that the KLA was itself responsible.