KLA guerrillas appeal for arms, NATO ground troops
April 17, 1999
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas, whose battle against Yugoslav forces has taken a backstage role since NATO airstrikes began March 24, are pleading with the alliance to supply them with arms.
"Arming the KLA would be one of the best decisions (NATO) planners could make," KLA spokesman Shinasi Rama told CNN on Saturday.
Rama also called for NATO ground troops to be introduced into Kosovo.
"We can take care of (Yugoslav President Slobodan) Milosevic," Rama said. "With every day that goes by, the Kosovo Liberation Army and people of Kosovo show that if they are supported by a strong air campaign and ground troops, we can get rid of the Milosevic regime."
The ethnic Albanian KLA began an uprising against Serb authorities and the Yugoslav government more than a year ago. Its battle for the independence of Kosovo, and a crackdown on the separatist movement by Belgrade, led Western countries to try to mediate a cease-fire. NATO began airstrikes after the peace negotiations failed.
The United States and NATO allies have opposed arming the KLA or endorsing it's goal of independence. KLA rebel leaders agreed to a peace plan proposed by the West which called for autonomy in Kosovo, not full independence.
But Rama said the KLA's provisional government believes that Yugoslavia has forfeited any claim to the province by unleashing a campaign of "ethnic cleansing."
Belgrade says it has forced the KLA out of Kosovo.
But KLA fighters are still active in the fog-bound mountains along the Albanian-Yugoslav frontier, and are now drawing recruits from other countries.
A contingent of 97 KLA volunteers -- mostly from the ethnic Albanian communities of the American northeast -- landed in Tirana, Albania's capital, on Saturday.
Several said they were ex-U.S. Marines. They ranged in age from a 73-year-old man to Elinda Muriqi, a 16-year-old girl from the Bronx who said she came to Albania "to shoot some Serbs."
Muriqi said she was not afraid of dying. "If I was scared, I would stay in America. I wouldn't come here," she said.
Many KLA troops have previous military experience from serving in the Yugoslav army, which they now battle with the indirect aid of NATO air power.
The KLA flexed its muscle this week by delivering a captured Yugoslav infantry officer to Albanian authorities, who have turned him over to the U.S. military in Tirana.
NATO officials said the rebels maintain a corridor between Albania and Kosovo, through which fighters pass into the province and refugees leave.
But critics have noted ties between rebel leaders and organized crime.
The KLA has also been scouting for recruits in the Kosovo refugee camps of Macedonia, a move that has angered local officials.
Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic, fears being drawn into the conflict in Kosovo and has launched a crackdown against the KLA.
Macedonian officials said they discovered a KLA armory in an abandoned mine near the border with Kosovo. And two ethnic Albanians from Macedonia were arrested when they were caught by police with a tractor loaded with guns.
But Albania has done little to deter KLA activity on its border, despite daily shelling along its border and a brief incursion Tuesday by a Yugoslav infantry unit.
NATO officials said the KLA could survive sustained attacks in Kosovo and defeat Yugoslav forces in time.
But Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO's supreme commander, said the alliance is not aiding the KLA, despite having a common adversary.
Clark, who arrived in Tirana Saturday, said the border skirmishes are one of several issues he discussed with Albanian leaders.
"We discussed the threat posed by Serb elements, artillery and infantry incursions into northern Albania. This threat is absolutely unacceptable, a violation of sovereign territory and it needs to be stopped," Clark said.
Yugoslav POW in U.S. custody; reserves to be called up
Extensive list of Kosovo-related sites
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