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Yugoslavia: Kosovo Corps Agreement May Strengthen UCK Leader

The political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) Hashim Thaci has reached a compromise agreement in Pristina with NATO and the UN that puts a formal end to the UCK but which may leave the former insurgent army in a stronger position than the international community had originally intended. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports that some uncertainty remains over the new Kosovo Corps' access to weapons.

Prague, 21 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The UCK's political leader, Hashim Thaci, appears to have emerged strengthened in his latest battle of wills with the international community over the future of Kosovo.

On Sunday, Thaci declined to sign an agreement with the UN administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping force (KFOR) that would have concluded the disarmament and demilitarization of the former insurgent group. UNMIK and KFOR extended the deadline for demilitarization by two days, giving Thaci more time to negotiate changes in the agreement.

An agreement was reached last night after NATO's commander, Gen. Wesley Clark, met with UCK's commanders in Pristina. Among the modifications to the version that had been readied for signing two days ago was a change of name for a proposed civilian corps. The corps, which will be called the Kosovo Protection Corps, could employ nearly half of the UCK's rank and file. Some uncertainty remains, however, about the total number of weapons that will be available to the new corps.

The UN administrator for Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, says Gen. Clark's meetings with the UCK commanders were very important. In Kouchner's words, "Clark taught them that you don't need to carry a gun to be a man."

KFOR spokesman Major Ole Irgens spoke to RFE/RL last night, shortly before the deal was signed. He said the new corps will not be the basis for a future army. "Many people in Kosovo want to build an army instead of a civilian corps. But that has never been KFOR and UNMIK's meaning [intention] with the Kosovo Corps. This should be a civilian, non-armed organization with uniforms, which will deal mainly with civilian tasks. It is not meant to be, or will not be, the core for a future army for Kosovo."

Irgens says KFOR is still the only legal security presence in Kosovo. And NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana issued a statement saying, "As of today, the UCK has ceased to exist as a structured paramilitary organization." Solana describes the new corps as a "multi-ethnic civilian emergency force." The word "protection" in the corps' name, Kosovo Protection Corps, is rather vague. Although not as strong a term as "defense corps" or "military corps," "protection corps" does give the impression that the corps' members are armed. And the corps' emblem bears a striking resemblance to UCK's old emblem. Both are in the Albanian national colors, black and red. But a map of Kosovo replaces the double-headed Albanian eagle, and the corp's initials BMK replace the initials UCK.

The corps will have 5,000 members, 3,000 of them regulars and 2,000 reservists. Kouchner says the corps will have only 200 weapons at its disposal. He says it will be at his personal discretion to rule on whether individual BMK members, who may believe they are at risk, should have a weapon for their own protection. But some UCK officials have told reporters that Thaci has persuaded NATO and the UN to allow considerably more weapons in the corps.

Kouchner says at least 10 percent of the personnel in the corps will be members of Kosovo's minorities -- mainly Serbs, as well as various Muslim Slavic groups, Turks and Roma. But with UCK's former military chief, Gen. Agim Ceku, due to command the new corps, it is unlikely that many Serbs will join up.

The official Yugoslav news agency Tanjug describes the establishment of the corps as "nothing but an alternate way to preserve the military structure of the terrorist bandits" -- Tanjug's term for former UCK insurgents. Meanwhile, Serbs in the divided city of Mitrovica say they are considering forming a force of their own.