KLA Fights To Block Partition

Albanians are concentrating military efforts in the north, to try to prevent Belgrade from realising their biggest fear: partition of the province.

KLA Fights To Block Partition

Albanians are concentrating military efforts in the north, to try to prevent Belgrade from realising their biggest fear: partition of the province.

Saturday, 17 April, 1999

Fighting in northern Kosovo between Yugoslav security forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) marks a critical strategic battle over the ultimate settlement for the province.

According to a KLA commander, some 10,000 KLA fighters have been defending 250,000 Albanian civilians in the Lapski and Shalja region in northern Kosovo. Along with trying to protect Kosovo Albanians, the KLA fighters are trying to prevent Yugoslav forces from completely depopulating it and securing the northern region as part of a potential partition offer. Fearful of such a deal between Belgrade and the West, KLA sources say they are concentrating their men and materiel in theses strategic areas in the north, which Belgrade would need to control before suing for peace.

Under the partition scenario, Albanians believe that Belgrade will offer the West a truce and hand over most of Kosovo to the Albanians in exchange for the province's strategic, economic and historical assets in the north. These includes valuable mines, as well as monasteries important for the Serbs. As a result, fighting between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and Serbian security forces is especially intense in the Lapski and Shalja region (Llap and Shala, in Albanian) of northern Kosovo. In the increased refugee flows over the Albanian in recent days, many appear to be from this region.

The Shalja region contains the Trepca copper and zinc mines where, in 1989, Albanian miners staged an underground hunger strike following Belgrade's removal of Kosovo's autonomous status.

Before 1989, the Trepca Mines were Europe's second most productive lead and zinc mines. In 1995 Belgrade leased the mines to the Greek company Mytilineos. But because of political instability, Mytilineos has made little investment and the mines are no longer operational.

Albanians believe the separation line will stretch from the north-western city of Pec (Peja) to the southeastern region of Kraj Morave (Anamorave). This line will encompass the major cities of Pristina, Mitrovica, parts of the Drenica region, and Kosovo Polje, site of the infamous 14th century battle the Serbs lost to the Ottoman empire.

Speaking by satellite phone, the KLA commander, who refused to give his name, claimed that the morale of both the fighters and the civilians is high. "So far we are doing well but we are concerned about the supply of food and medicine, which is running very low," he said.

Indeed, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea has referred to the KLA as "rising from the ashes." He claimed that the KLA "is able to mount a number of attacks still inside Kosovo." Speaking at a recent press conference in Brussels, he said that the Yugoslav Army is "being forced to . . . step up its counter-insurgency operations" against the KLA, which is gaining thousands of new recruits.

Fighting has been concentrated around Mitrovica, in an area surrounded by hills and heavy forest. In order to force the KLA into the open, Serbian forces have been shelling heavily, the KLA commander said.

Economically, Belgrade is believed to be aiming to secure not only the mines but also the major highways that lead west to the Montenegrin port of Kotor via Pec. By taking the region of Kraj Morave, Belgrade will build a buffer to the major highway that currently skirts Kosovo and leads, via Macedonia, to the Greek port of Thessaloniki.

In order to secure the eastern highway, Belgrade may have to extend its offensive beyond Kosovo's frontiers into the ethnic Albanian populated town of Presevo, located in Serbia proper, just across Kosovo's eastern border.

Belgrade's partition plan is believed to envisage an ethnically pure Slav border between Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia. This would entail pushing the Albanian population of that region into Albania proper.

According to Ylber Hysa, of the Kosovo Action and Civic Initiative, formerly a Pristina-based think tank, "If the West buys into any part of this scheme for ending the war then they will set a precedent for the region. Aggression will have been rewarded and it will be clear that territories can be divided according to both ethnic and economic lines." This would fuel Albanian demands to partition Macedonia and link with Albania and a rump Kosovo. Like most Albanian analysts, Hysa wants to see the deployment of NATO ground troops to end the war and the creation of an international protectorate in Kosovo.

Fron Nazi is a senior editor for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

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