New Guerrillas Rival Old Rebels To Free Kosovo
KLA gives a cold shoulder to an upstart group, complicating the path to peace
This rugged mountain land no longer belongs solely to the Kosovo Liberation Army.
In a development that could hamper the armed independence movement in Kosovo, a second guerrilla army rivaling the KLA has sprung up with a base in northern Albania.
Like the KLA, the three-month-old group, known as the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosovo (FARK), advocates independence for the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. But it has an antagonistic relationship with the much larger KLA, and its very existence could trigger a greater split in the already-divided ethnic Albanian community.
According to an American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, the emergence of FARK is an indication that "the KLA itself and its legitimacy are coming under question."
Friction between the armed groups is substantial. The KLA coordinating officer in the Tropoje District of northern Albania, who gave the nom de guerre "The Blind One," called FARK "cowards" and "traitors."
The existence of FARK was confirmed by the KLA, American officials, and international observers in Albania. But efforts this week to reach its mountain base were made impossible by heavy rains that rendered the dirt roads impassable.
A KLA soldier who tried to lead journalists to FARK was visibly frightened when stopped by a four-wheel-drive truck coming from the direction of the FARK base. "I'm not sure who these guys are," the soldier said.. "But I know they're not with us."
According to KLA sources, FARK largely comprises former Yugoslav Army officers who are dissatisfied with the KLA's system. Of an estimated 100 FARK members, half are fighting in Kosovo and half are training across the border in northern Albania.
FARK is aligned with Bujar Bukoshi, prime minister in exile of Kosovo's parallel government. Mr. Bukoshi, based in Germany, is responsible for raising funds from abroad that finance the parallel ethnic Albanian government. His relations with the KLA have been strained from the outset. Now, US officials say, he appears to be funding FARK.
The remote mountains of northern Albania are virtually cut off from the control of the Albanian government in Tirana. The region is dominated by criminal gangs that are organized in family clans. Rebel soldiers use northern Albania as a haven from the Serbian forces and as a point of entry for arms smuggling into Kosovo.
In addition to soldiers, some 14,000 refugees from Kosovo have fled to Tropoje District, which one international relief worker called "the most dangerous region in Europe."
"This is Dodge City," says Alessandra Morelli, head of the United Nations refugee agency in the town of Bajram Curri. "We've already had two of our trucks hijacked at gunpoint."
In Kosovo, ethnic Albanians are waging a six-month-old war for independence. At one point the KLA claimed to control 40 percent of the land in Kosovo, of which 90 percent of the 2 million inhabitants are ethnic Albanians. But, during a recent offensive by the Yugoslav Army and forces from the Serbian Ministry of Interior, the guerrillas lost their strongholds and were chased to the hills. Many fled to Albania.
KLA leaders say they will begin a new strategy of hit-and-run attacks - a more conventional guerrilla tactic.
Already more than 400 are dead and more than 200,000 have been displaced from their homes. Most of the victims have been ethnic Albanians.
The implications of a second ethnic Albanian army fighting in Kosovo are broad. It is reminiscent of the war in neighboring Bosnia, when a Bosnian Muslim armed group supported by the Bosnian Serbs was formed and ended up fighting against the Bosnian government's army.
Even with just one guerrilla army in Kosovo, American-led negotiations have been difficult because the KLA is divided and lacks clear leadership. With a second ethnic Albanian army, the independence movement becomes even more murky.
American diplomats, led by Ambassador to Macedonia Christopher Hill, have already begun negotiations between the Serbs and the ethnic Albanians without KLA representation. The diplomatic strategy is to make progress with mainstream ethnic Albanian leaders now and hope the armed guerrillas join the peace process at a later time.
The existence of two ethnic Albanian armies also presents difficulties on the ground in Kosovo. If FARK grows, it will become impossible to determine who is responsible for military actions. FARK forces sometimes wear uniforms identical to the KLA, complete with KLA insignias.
"One of the questions will be how effective is [FARK] as a military organization," says the American official. "How well equipped is it? How well trained is it? Can it kill Serbs? If it can do that, then I think it can be a formidable rival to the KLA."
The KLA coordinator in northern Albania directed strong warnings toward FARK and raised the possibility of an intraethnic Albanian conflict.
"We heard they were within 50 yards of a Serbian police patrol but did not attack," says the KLA leader.
"In my opinion, they are sympathetic with the Serbs. And, if that is the case, we will not hesitate to fight with them, too."
* Staff writer Jonathan S. Landay in Washington contributed to this report.