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Crisis 1999
News Archive 1999

KLA demilitarisation deal despite last minute wrangles

Days of dispute slowed progress towards Monday night's agreement on the demilitarisation of the Kosovo Liberation Army and highlighted a profound disagreement between the Kosovars and the international community on the nature of the force that will replace it.

By Laura Rozen in Pristina

The KLA made no secret of its intention to transform itself from a rebel army into a real army that will serve to defend a future independent Kosovo.

The internationals have tried to compromise by agreeing to the formation of a 5,000 person 'Kosovo Protection Corps', which they see as a civilian national guard type force that they intended to be as harmless as the Boy Scouts.

Sunday's scheduled high-profile ceremony to mark the official end of the Kosovo Liberation Army failed to come to pass and another day of talks was needed to close the deal. The creation of the Corps was finally agreed on Monday night after hours of meetings between NATO supreme allied commander General Wesley Clark, and KLA military commander general Agim Ceku. The agreement calls for Ceku to become commander of the new corps - one of the KLA's key demands.

Kosovo's chief peacekeeper Lt-General Mike Jackson and UN senior official Bernard Kouchner envisage the Corps as a civilian organisation to help in civilian emergencies, reconstruction and search and rescue operations.

But concessions made in the final moments of the negotiations only underlined the increasingly obvious gap between how KLA commanders understand the future of the rebel army, and how Jackson's KFOR peacekeepers see it.

Three stumbling blocks - the name of the Corps, its command structure, and the number of weapons some KLA commanders wanted to remain in possession of - were reported by sources close to the KLA to be the particular glitches which prevented Sunday's signing ceremony from happening as scheduled.

The two sides agreed on the name of 'Kosovo Protection Corps', as requested by the KLA, instead of the 'Kosovo Corps' proposed by the internationals. Seen as a concession by KFOR, the word 'protection' in Albanian can also be translated as 'defence'. KLA leaders have also consistently described this force to its rank-and-file and in the Albanian language press as a "Kosovo Army" or "Kosovo Troops".

For not only the name of the force - which will have 3,000 full-time members and 2,000 reserves - but its essential nature, is at issue.

"The KLA is transforming, it won't be called the KLA, but it will be a defence force of the citizens and territory of Kosovo," 31 year old KLA political leader Hashim Thaci told cheering supporters in Pristina's stadium following the KLA's "farewell" parade through the town Saturday.

"Today, we are ending the march of freedom but we are starting the march of the future for the independent Kosovo and its army," the KLA's top military commander General Agim Ceku told the crowd. Ceku has been agreed as the new force's commander.

The militaristic nature of the force KLA leaders describe is fundamentally at odds with the civilian nature of the national guard type force KFOR has agreed to train. As KFOR explains it, the Kosovo Protection Corps it has agreed to create would have absolutely "no military, law-enforcement or anti-terrorism functions."

KFOR describes the duties of such a force as fundamentally civilian in nature; such as to provide rapid reaction services in the case of a natural disaster, or to assist with major infrastructure and good works projects around the province.

The new agreement will allow the Corps to deploy up to 200 small arms to its members guarding its bases. The KLA leaders wanted a larger number - 2,000 arms - to issue to the new corps. On this issue, KFOR did not give way; the number remains 200. However, KFOR officials earlier said that Kosovar citizens would be allowed to seek licenses to carry arms for "personal protection." Presumably that means that some ex-KLA soldiers will be granted permission to possess certain types of small arms.

More than 10,000 weapons have already been handed over as part of as part of the UN mandated demilitarisation process.

KFOR spokesman acknowledge that Kosovo has a "culture of arms" and people are used to having weapons in their homes. Some might interpret his comments as saying, if the KLA would just sign the demilitarisation and keep weapons and uniforms out of sight and not cause trouble, then KFOR wasn't going to go to great lengths to try to hunt for weapons buried in backyards and in basements throughout the province.

In fact, since it deployed three months ago, KFOR commanders have shown considerable sensitivity to the KLA leaders' desire to play a constructive role in post-war Kosovo life. KLA members are being recruited in significant numbers into the new OSCE-trained Kosovo police force, and the fact that one has military experience is considered an asset when being considered for the force.

On Saturday, KFOR allowed the KLA soldiers to appear in uniform and lightly armed for the last time, as the force held a parade through the packed streets of the capital Pristina. KFOR's willingness to create the Kosovo Corps is another indication of the international peacekeepers' effort to give ex-Kosovar rebels a useful role in job-scarce Kosovo, and a sense of dignity.

And until snags marred the demilitarisation process Sunday, to date KFOR has generally praised the KLA for its compliance with the process, which has largely taken men in UCK uniforms off the streets. Although a brisk business in UCK car decals, key rings, and flags now thrives on the streets of Pristina.

KFOR's fairly generous stance toward the KLA may have grown out of worries that too much pressure could lead to hardline factions of the organisation breaking away from the top leadership, and continuing its activities underground.

There was speculation that the KLA itself was in danger of splitting on these lines. KLA commander General Agim Ceku canceled a scheduled appearance with KFOR commander Lt. General Sir Mike Jackson Sunday morning to rush off to meet Ramush Harudinaj, a KLA zone commander in south-west Kosovo and former French foreign legionnaire. Harudinaj is one of two KLA regional commanders who were reported to be refusing to comply with turning over some weapons to KFOR.

KLA zone commanders were also reported to be anxious about losing the right to wear uniforms and their UCK insignia. Jackson said Tuesday that the new force's emblem would use the same red, black and gold colours as the KLA insignia but replaces the Albanian double-headed eagle insignia with a map of Kosovo.

The demilitarisation process, which was extended to Tuesday midnight, required KLA soldiers to no longer appear in uniforms in Kosovo.

Laura Rozen has been covering the Balkans for western media since 1996.

© Institute of War &Peace Reporting

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