Kosovo rebels maneuver to grab power in postwar chaos


PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (August 8, 1999 1:17 p.m. EDT http://www.nandotimes.com) - Surrounded
by thousands of supporters on a sunny afternoon, former guerrilla commander Hashim
Thaci promised Kosovo's ethnic Albanians that one day their will would decide the future
of their homeland.

For now, though, Thaci's Kosovo Liberation Army is trying to impose its will on the
Serbian province and grab as much power as it can in the postwar disorder.

As the United Nations struggles to set up a civil administration to run Kosovo and more
than 35,000 NATO troops provide security, the KLA has appointed its people to fill local
leadership positions throughout the province, taken over former state-run property and
requisitioned apartments and vehicles.

More and more, the ambitions of the rebels come into conflict with the mission of the
international community, even as the KLA disarms itself under an agreement with

Twice last week, a KLA commander serving as minister of public order in the interim
ethnic Albanian leadership headed by Thaci was confronted by NATO troops. In
Kosovska Mitrovica, local KLA leaders inspired a protest that sparked clashes with
French troops.

In its drive for control, the KLA enjoys a newfound popularity from the war. Although
fewer than 5 percent of Kosovo Albanians belong to the KLA, its struggle against a
stronger Serb force has given the organization heroic status.

It has also been strengthened by the weakness of rival Ibrahim Rugova, whose
popularity eroded during due to his self-exile in Italy and Serb television footage
showing him meeting with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's aides during the
war. Rugova said fear for his family's safety forced him into those talks.

Some U.N. representatives criticize the KLA for trying to effectively take over Kosovo
before a new social and political system gets set up.

"They confiscate anything they want," said Jiri Dienstbier, a U.N. human rights official.

According to political analyst Belul Beqaj, who has done consulting work for Thaci,
neither the international community that holds formal power in Kosovo nor the KLA,
which has the most influence, properly acknowledge the standing of the other.

That prolongs the void of legitimate governing structures, allowing local groups and
criminal gangs from neighboring Albania to destabilize the province.

Thaci, who rose to prominence by representing the KLA at the Rambouillet talks that
produced the agreement guiding the rebuilding of Kosovo, insists his rebel army now
wants to make sure a purely democratic system emerges.

"Kosovo's people will decide the future in a democratic way," he declared Saturday at a
KLA rally in the northern town of Podujevo attended by thousands of cheering ethnic
Albanians. He made clear the group seeks Kosovo's independence, but only under the
guidelines of Rambouillet - after a three-year transition period and a referendum.

Then on Friday night, troops acting on a tip searched a house where his minister of
public order, Rexhep Selimi, and other men were meeting. They found a submachine
gun, ammunition, radio frequency scanners and identity cards marked "Ministry of
Public Order" that said bearers were allowed to carry weapons, confiscate property and
detain people - all illegal acts.

A NATO statement warned against anyone assuming police powers in Kosovo, saying
its troops were, for now, the only legitimate security force in the territory.

In Kosovska Mitrovica, ethnic Albanians seeking free movement in the Serb section of
town across the Ibar River scuffled with French soldiers blocking their way Saturday,
leaving three demonstrators injured.

"The KLA leaders are only interested in keeping up the pressure," complained French
Lt. Meriadec Raffray. "They want to provoke an incident."

Throughout Kosovo, aid agency workers say they must deal with the KLA to get things

"We talked to the mayor's office and we had a deal with local police, but it was one and
the same - KLA," said Roar Henriksen, a Norwegian Church Aid worker cleaning
contaminated wells in western Kosovo.

Most troubling are the crimes - murders, beatings, forced removals - that Serb victims
often blame on men in KLA uniforms. In Pristina, KLA signs went up on former
government-run shops soon after the war ended and ethnic Albanian refugees returning
to Kosovo moved into Serb or empty apartments they claimed were promised to them
by KLA officials.

Thaci denies the KLA breaks the law, and even political opponents give him the benefit
of the doubt.

"No doubt there can be some groups, organized gangs like robbers, that maybe even
use KLA uniforms," said Milazim Krasniqi, the spokesman for the rival League of
Democratic Kosovo headed by Rugova.

U.N. spokesman Kevin Kennedy acknowledged that a KLA attempt to assume authority
could be a problem, but expressed optimism that the province's international
administrators would offer a better alternative.

"You're going to have in here a civil administration that draws on experience from many
countries in areas that the KLA cannot match," he said.