Goodbye to the KLA - Perhaps

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

( - At midnight Tuesday, the uniforms and insignia of the Kosovo Liberation Army are set to disappear, as the rebel militia reconstitutes itself into a body NATO envisages as a purely civilian, humanitarian structure.

But many Kosovars had hoped the force - which a senior American official has called "terrorist" - would form the embryo of a future national army, and it remains to be seen how thorough the demilitarization and disarmament process will be.

That difference in outlook was largely behind a 48-hour delay in the deadline for transformation of the KLA, which is believed to have anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 members, into what will from Wednesday morning be known as the Kosovo Protection Corps.

Rebel commanders held out for better terms, dissatisfied both with the overall appearance of the new, 5,000-strong body, and the number of weapons it would be allowed.

Agreement was finally reached in Pristina Monday night, after unexpected personal intervention by NATO's supreme commander, General Wesley Clark.

The concessions won by the KLA appear minimal - a change of the name of the new body to include the word "protection," and a slightly reworded text regarding weapons.

Whereas NATO wanted the corps to be limited to 200 sidearms for bodyguard duties and protection of key sites, the new formula says "a limited number of weapons will be available for personal protection and the number of weapons available to KPC personnel responsible for guarding and protection duties has been agreed at 200."

But how many weapons the Kosovar Albanians will hold onto is unclear. Although the KLA has handed in some 10,000 firearms to the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force since it signed an agreement to disarm in June, most of those seen at collection points have been old or damaged.

According to one British report, "mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons are still in the hands of ethnic Albanians, used on an almost daily basis to terrify the dwindling Serb and Gypsy population into leaving."

The KLA has been named in Western intelligence reports as a group with links to Islamist terror organizations, and which largely armed itself with funds earned from smuggling drugs to European markets.

Robert Gelbard, Washington's special representative in the Balkans, reiterated several times last February that the KLA was "without any question a terrorist group." The State Department has not officially designated it as such.

Since the end of NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, Kosovo has been administered by international bodies an entity beyond the control of Belgrade. Many Kosovar Albanians hope for eventual independence for the war-shattered province and regard the KLA as a symbol of that aspiration.

The standoff in negotiations between NATO, the UN and the KLA had threatened to cause a rift between the Kosovar leadership and the international bodies. There have been reports of some resentment among KLA military and political figures about NATO's failure to consult adequately over administration of the province.

Last night's delayed agreement signed at KFOR headquarters in Pristina did not specify the tasks of the Kosovo Protection Corps, although NATO statements have stressed humanitarian and disaster relief functions.

A KFOR spokesman, Major Roland Lavoie, said in a statement Tuesday that the corps would "provide a highly-needed civilian emergency service.

"This significant event, that occurred only 100 days after the arrival of KFOR in Kosovo, is another milestone in the security restoration process in which KFOR is actively involved for the well-being of all people in Kosovo," he added.

The body will fall under leadership of KLA chief of staff, General Agim Ceku, and be supervised by the British commander of KFOR, Lieutenant-General Mike Jackson.

The Yugoslav government accused NATO of succumbing to "blackmail" from the "extremist-terrorist ethnic Albanian organization," the official Tanjug news agency reports.

Approached for comment on the delay and eventual, amended agreement, a press officer for the British Ministry of Defense in London would only tell "We welcome the disbanding of the KLA and the creation of the KPC."

Britain played a major role in NATO's air war in the Balkans and the subsequent formation of KFOR.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow