NATO and the Kosovo Liberation Army reached agreement tonight on a plan to transform the rebel organization into a civil defense group following weeks of difficult negotiations that revealed fundamental differences between the two sides over the KLA's future in Kosovo.
Leaders of the ethnic Albanian force accepted the plan after a direct appeal from Gen. Wesley K. Clark, NATO's supreme commander, and after winning a concession from NATO on the new group's name. The agreement, which came one day after NATO extended a deadline for KLA demobilization, headed off a crisis between the NATO-led peacekeeping force and the rebel group, which fought a 16-month war against Serb-led Yugoslav forces for Kosovo's independence.
But there is still a wide gap between NATO and the KLA about the political influence of KLA officials and whether ethnic Albanians in the Connecticut-size province need a home-grown military force.
The accord was reached after KLA leaders, including all but one of the rebel group's regional commanders, won agreement from NATO to call the new ethnic Albanian civil defense group the Kosovo Protection Corps. The organization, which NATO had wanted to name the Kosovo Corps, will oversee humanitarian and disaster assistance within the territory.
NATO's field commander here, British Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson, gained a renewed promise from the KLA leadership today that the group will officially cease to exist at midnight Tuesday, two days past a deadline set in June, when NATO peacekeepers began arriving in Kosovo following the 78-day allied air campaign against Yugoslavia.
In recent weeks, NATO also persuaded KLA members to turn in more than 10,000 weapons, 5.5 million rounds of ammunition and 27,000 grenades, and to stop wearing their uniforms. But no one here pretends that the former rebels will lack access to additional weapons and ammunition, or that the KLA will fade into oblivion.
In fact, KLA leader Hashim Thaqi, who last spring was named prime minister of a provisional Kosovo government, announced today that he plans to form a political party. The party's apparent objective is to obtain an electoral mandate legitimizing the KLA's present lock on key political positions throughout the province. The party's long-term objective will be to gain Kosovo's independence from Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, a goal opposed by most Western countries.
The new head of the Kosovo Protection Corps -- a name that proved palatable to the KLA because it hints at a military function -- will be Agim Ceku, the KLA's military chief of staff, according to NATO and U.N. officials here.
The divisions between NATO and the KLA about the new role for its members have been apparent for weeks. In public statements, KLA officials repeatedly described the new corps as the nucleus of a future national army, while NATO officials insisted they would not tolerate any military force in Kosovo other than the NATO-led peacekeepers. The United Nations is also in the process of creating a separate Kosovo police force.
For weeks, NATO officials had dismissed the KLA's statements as part of an effort to sell what amounts to a military retreat to the ethnic Albanian public. To the six commanders of the KLA's brigades, however, it was genuine ideology, provoked by a sense that the KLA's military task remains unfulfilled as long as Kosovo remains part of Serbia.
Most of the commanders were deeply unhappy at the prospect of the KLA's transformation into a civilian organization, and one of them, Ramush Hajredinaj, was notably absent from today's meeting with Clark. "We think he needs a vacation," said a frustrated official in the ethnic Albanian provisional government about the notoriously stubborn Hajredinaj.
NATO officials have long feared that the group might splinter into factions of accommodationists and rejectionists. The lesson of the KLA's own history -- it started with a few dozen members and grew within a year to a force of more than 10,000 -- is that any rejectionist group need not be large to make its presence felt.
NATO's desire to avoid pushing the KLA too far lies behind its decision to accept a name for the new group that is more to the rebels' liking. A patch to be worn by members of the new corps does not display the Albanian flag, as the KLA had wanted, but it has a map of Kosovo in red and black -- the colors of the flag.
Other NATO concessions also may be embroidered into a detailed document spelling out the operational management of the new corps, which NATO has not yet released.
But on several other matters, the Western alliance's negotiators won KLA concessions. One provision of the deal limits the number of weapons available to corps members for self-defense at any one time to 200, instead of the 450 requested by the KLA; another limits the total full-time membership of the corps to 3,000. NATO rejected a KLA demand to begin moving toward creation of a national army in one year.
A senior NATO official said Jackson and Clark had refused to give ground on these points out of a sense of obligation to the Belgrade government and to Serbs living in Kosovo. Belgrade officials had agreed to permit the deployment of NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo on condition that the KLA be demilitarized and disbanded.