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Yugoslavia: Kosovo Liberation Army At Odds With Pacifist Leader

By Tim Judah

Prague, 1 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The war in Kosovo has taken a deadly new twist. Just when a united front is needed in face of a humanitarian disaster, Kosovo's Albanian politicians are at one another's throats as never before.

It is commonplace to hear that a fiendishly clever Serbian "divide-and-rule" policy is at work, but the facts suggest otherwise. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic must be pleased that Kosovars seem to have begun to shoot one another.

In June, at the height of its fortunes, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) not only controlled large swaths of territory but appeared to have consigned Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo's pacifist leader, to the dustbin of history. That was not the case. Down, but not out, Rugova and his colleagues in the government-in-exile began to fight back.

The mastermind behind that government's attempt to seize control of the KLA was Xhafer Shatri, Rugova's minister of information, based in Geneva. Working with Bujar Bukoshi, the head of the government, who lives in Bonn, he dispatched 14 military officers to Albania and Kosovo. The two cabinet members also activated the dormant Ministry of Defense, appointing Ahmet Krasniqi as minister.

The 14 officers, although formally operating under the aegis of their own Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosovo (FARK), had as their goal the takeover of the KLA. The idea was that once this had been achieved, Rugova could proceed to the negotiating table in a position of strength--with a government, a parliament, and an army.

Perhaps the U.S. unwittingly exercised some influence over the FARK's ambitions. On July 4, Robert Gelbard, the U.S. special envoy to the Balkans, told a meeting in London that in his view, a good compromise for Kosovo would be the so-called "three republic solution."

This envisaged a Yugoslavia in which Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo would not only be self-governing within the country's present borders but also would each have its own army.

The FARK plan has ended in disaster because of deeply rooted antagonisms on both sides. The KLA was founded in 1993. The driving force behind its creation was Popular Movement for Kosovo (LPK), a clandestine fringe group that, since its foundation in 1982, had consistently called for an uprising against the Serbs.

Many of its members were, and are, former political prisoners who despise Rugova and his inner circle. They point out that while they, as radicals, were in prison in the 1980s, many of those who now surround Rugova were at the time politicians and functionaries of the then autonomous Kosovo.

Moreover, some members of Rugova's inner circle, such as Xhafer Shatri, used to be LPK members. Sabri Hamiti, Rugova's closest adviser, is also a former hardliner now reviled as a defector, traitor, and political opportunist. The KLA also regarded Ahmet Krasniqi as a traitor because when he was captured as a former Yugoslav Army officer by the Croats in Gospic in 1991, he was duly returned to Belgrade. Others who met a similar fate defected to fight the Serbs.

On September 21, unknown persons murdered Krasniqi in Tirana. Three days earlier, the KLA had virtually pronounced a death sentence on him after it denounced another FARK commander as a traitor.

A KLA communique said: "One day these kind of people will pay for the damage they have caused to our nation." Sources close to the KLA have hardly bothered to disguise the fact that Krasniqi's death was the KLA's handiwork.

The KLA's military capacity has been devastated by the Serbian offensive. But Rugova has hardly been coy about showing his satisfaction. As he has not been able to take over the KLA, his power and influence now depend on its being eliminated as a credible rival.

The KLA then is down but, like Rugova several months ago, is far from out. In the spring, a commander named Qazim declared that anyone who dared sign a compromise deal with the Serbs would be "executed." In mid-September, 13 Pristina politicians were detained by the KLA for two days. The KLA's aim was not just to show those politicians that it still existed but to instill fear into them. On September 24 Sabri Hamiti was shot but not killed.

So far, Rugova has not backed off from his demand for independence but has agreed to the so-called "interim solution," whereby Kosovo's final status would not be decided until three years after a preliminary agreement was reached.

In view of the catastrophe now facing Kosovars, Rugova's star is back in the ascendant. If he could halt the war, win an acceptable measure of autonomy for Kosovo, and offer the prospect of independence, he would have the backing of the vast majority of Kosovars.

It is precisely this possibility that the KLA wants to forestall. Its objective is to regroup during the winter so as to emerge in the spring as a rejuvenated but slimmed-down guerrilla organization whose aim would be to wear down the Serbs in a war of attrition.

(The author is a British journalist whose writings include "The Serbs: History, Myth, and the Destruction of Yugoslavia" (Yale University Press, 1997).