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[Emperor's Clothes]

by Paul Watson
KACANIK, Yugoslavia , May 31, 1999

The Kalashnikov assault rifle slung over Saip Reka's shoulder comes courtesy of the Serbian police so that the Kosovo Albanian and his wife can fight their own people.

Ethnic Albanian guerrillas in the Kosovo Liberation Army are scattered in the mountain forests and foothills that surround this small, almost deserted town in southern Kosovo.

So Serbian authorities are arming the minority of fiercely loyal ethnic Albanians to join in the fight against the KLA, which wants to make an independent state out of Kosovo, a poor southern province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. "We see them from time to time in the nearby hills, in groups of three to five men--at most 10," Reka said through a translator Sunday. "Thank God I haven't met any directly because I know that if they catch me, I'm dead."

The government's strategy of creating new ethnic Albanian militias is creating another potential threat that foreign peacekeeping troops will have to contend with once they get into Kosovo, either by negotiation or by force.

Reka, 44, heads the local self-defense unit of ethnic Albanians, whose ranks include his wife, Malina, also 44, an ample woman with a few gold teeth, a serious smoking habit and an assault rifle of her own.

They are among just 150 ethnic Albanians holding out in Kacanik, which had a population of about 10,000 people before the North Atlantic Treaty Organization began its air war against Yugoslavia almost 10 weeks ago.

Fifty Serbs and Gypsies also live in the town, which is a constant target for NATO warplanes--and KLA guerrillas--because Yugoslav forces are dug in all around in case NATO troops attack from nearby Macedonia.

"In addition to providing security, we are trying to talk to people and persuade them not to leave," Reka said. "I can understand that those [guerrillas] who have bloodied their hands are going, but those who have not, nobody has ever touched them."

Many of the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians who are now refugees in Albania and Macedonia, or elsewhere, say that Serbian police, soldiers and paramilitary units forced them to flee. Others say they left to escape NATO's bombs.

Thousands of burned homes and shops across much of Kosovo only hint at the terror that swept through.

NATO calls it "ethnic cleansing," a euphemism coined in the early stages of the Yugoslav federation's violent breakup, when armed thugs drove people from their homes, and often set fire to the buildings, to permanently expel whole ethnic groups.

The government of the rump Yugoslavia insists that Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority will be allowed to return to the province once NATO's bombing stops and a peace deal is reached.

Thousands of internally displaced people are already making their way back to ruined villages, towns and cities, but as the civil war against the KLA begins to escalate again, the threat of more expulsions rises too.

The people who fled Kacanik and made the 10-mile journey south to the Macedonian border were frightened either by the fighting between the KLA and Serbian forces or by constant NATO airstrikes in and around Kacanik, according to Reka. "There is bombing here day and night," he said. "They were even dropping cluster bombs. Of course, every normal person is afraid of that."

Reka concedes that Serbian security forces ordered some of Kacanik's ethnic Albanians to leave. But his description is far more delicate than the often detailed accounts of rapes, executions and massacres being told in refugee camps just across the border.

"Nobody was expelled," he insisted. "Some who were living in areas where the KLA fighters were hiding were told to move to another area where they would not get hurt during the operations against the KLA."

Yugoslav forces thought they had the KLA crushed, but there are mounting reports of guerrilla snipers opening fire on the roads and from the fringes of cities and towns such as Prizren, near the Albanian border, and even Pristina, Kosovo's provincial capital.

This apparent resurgence of the KLA has encouraged Kosovo's Serb-dominated government to mobilize ethnic Albanians who support unity with Serbia and oppose the KLA hard-liners' vision of union with a Greater Albania.

Ethnic Albanian self-defense units are being armed and fitted with new uniforms in several areas of Kosovo most vulnerable to KLA attacks, such as Pristina and the western town of Djakovica, authorities say.

The government set up Kacanik's ethnic Albanian self-defense unit in September, but of the 40 original members, only six are left, Reka said.

He claims that KLA guerrillas kidnapped the others, including his two brothers, who went missing March 29. One of his brothers disappeared after leaving to take his wife and children to Macedonia, Reka said.

Before NATO's airstrikes began March 24, estimates of the KLA's strength ranged from 20,000 to 40,000 guerrillas. A ruthless offensive by Serbian security forces reduced the KLA to about 5,000 fighters within days of the first bomb falling, according to the Pentagon.

But as NATO warplanes pound Yugoslav troops and Serbian special police units along Kosovo's southern and western borders, they are helping the KLA infiltrate in increasing numbers from Macedonia and, especially, via the guerrillas' main routes across the Albanian frontier.

The number of KLA fighters is now somewhere between 15,000 and 17,000, Rear Adm. Thomas Wilson, the top intelligence officer for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Washington on Thursday.

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon later denied that NATO is secretly trying to rebuild the KLA, whose war for independence NATO officially opposes.

"Our goal has never been to empower the KLA to create more fighting," Bacon said. "Our goal has been to end the fighting in Kosovo."

That argument makes no sense to Reka, nor to the Serbian and Gypsy friends he was sitting with Sunday afternoon in the shade of a shop patio on a badly looted street in Kacanik.

To them, outsiders are at the root of Kosovo's problems, and they think the territory's ethnic groups can work out their own problems if they are only left alone.

"We get along just fine," Reka said, nodding at his Serbian friend. "There's no way I can hate him or that he can hate me."

(C) 1999 'L.A. Times' Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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