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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

KLA Is Force in Kosovo Despite Demilitarization

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia -- Eight men in black uniforms waded into an angry ethnic Albanian mob here the other day and ordered the crowd to stop hurling stones and cease attempts to storm the largely Serbian neighborhood across the Ibar River, which divides the city.

The uniforms identified the men as officers of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian rebel group that under the war-ending agreement between Belgrade and NATO must disband as a military force by Sunday. The crowd dispersed without a complaint, a sign of the KLA's influence among ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, where NATO peacekeepers wield most of the authority since the allied air war against Yugoslavia ended in June.

It is the kind of role the KLA wants in Kosovo, despite its scheduled "demilitarization" under an agreement signed with NATO 2 1/2 months ago. KLA hopes are tied to a NATO-sanctioned program to transform about half its current membership of approximately 10,000 officers into a civil defense corps. KLA officials regard the corps as a step toward the creation of a national army.

In its new incarnation, the KLA will be called the Kosovo Corps. It will handle reconstruction, emergency rescues and logistics. It also will include a ceremonial marching unit with a band. Some 3,000 KLA members will be employed full-time and 2,000 part-time. NATO and the United Nations will ask member governments for money to pay for the organization.

KLA members also are joining a separate police force organized by the UN, and so far represent the majority of recruits. In addition, KLA political leader Hashim Thaqi is often mentioned as the potential leader of a new political party. The KLA will have a strong advantage over political rivals - especially more moderate Albanian politicians at odds with the KLA leadership - in a part of the world where military and police traditionally form the pillars of power. This prospect has upset some Western governments, particularly those in Europe, who hold the KLA in low regard because of doubts about its commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

NATO and the KLA have often been at odds since the rebels made a triumphant return to Kosovo's towns and villages after the withdrawal of Yugoslav soldiers and police in June. KLA members have taken part in reprisals against Serbian civilians, driving tens of thousands from Kosovo despite Western efforts to get them to stay.

Yugoslavia and its chief diplomatic ally, Russia, oppose the transformation of the KLA into a civil defense corps. They argue that it would simply be the KLA in disguise, which would be inconsistent with NATO's pledge to demilitarize the rebel group.

But NATO officials defend the inclusion of KLA members in Kosovo's police force and the transformation of the group into a civil defense corps, arguing that it eases the tricky task of KLA demobilization, which many rebels oppose. Placing the rebels in civilian pursuits will keep idle, and potentially dangerous hands, busy, or so the thinking goes.

NATO also has come to depend on the KLA to maintain order, as it did during the incident in Kosovska Mitrovica. Failure to provide a face-saving way to keep the KLA together could mean conflict between it and peacekeepers, German Major General Klaus Olshausen said. "It is important for the peacekeeping mission to avoid confrontation and even the risk of life," he said.

Maintaining good ties with the KLA is in NATO's interest now, but the West ultimately may find itself at odds with the rebel group. Western countries officially recognize Kosovo as part of Yugoslavia; the KLA does not. NATO officials acknowledge that demilitarization of the KLA will not prevent their access to weapons. Hidden caches are still being uncovered in the province, even as the KLA pledges to demobilize.

The KLA doesn't hide its desire to remain an army. The rebels place that goal in the context of eventual independence from Yugoslavia. The civil defense corps is a first step, its leaders say.

"It will be the beginnings of an army," Agim Ceku, KLA chief of staff, said in an interview. "I'm sad that the KLA as it is now will be disbanded. It is the biggest thing we in Kosovo had."

Despite the demilitarization deadline - which the KLA says it will meet - Ceku insists the corps will continue to have access to weapons and for the most part will maintain its current structure.

"I view it as a civilian protection force as a way to help the people and the peacekeepers," Ceku said. "We could help in everything from directing traffic to riot control."