The KLA is ready and willing to go back to war

 

Kosovo's Rambouillet peace talks have fallen flat in part because of splits among ethnic Albanians that have worsened as the negotiations went on.

The chances of a deal being signed yesterday were in fact scuppered the night before by the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army. It suddenly gave the power of veto to a leader, Mr Adem Demaci, whose most important qualification was that he was at that moment in Kosovo, 1,200 miles from the conference chamber.

Like the Serbs, where real power resides only in Belgrade with President Slobodan Milosevic, the Albanians had moved part of the decision-making process outside Rambouillet's handsome walls. They were probably doing the West a favour.

Kosovo's Albanians, united in their determination on full independence, are falling out over whether to accept the various compromises on offer from the West.

A month ago it seemed very different. Rambouillet talks began only after the political director of the KLA, Mr Hasim Thaci, had agreed with a team of Austrian and British diplomats to accept the outline of a three-year autonomy deal. The Albanians would get self-government and aid to rebuild shattered villages, while the KLA would retain its army, with some units transferring into a legal, armed, police force. Most of all, the KLA would retain control of its self-declared "liberated zones" allowing it to build a political base to fight elections against its hated rival, Kosovo's pacifist political leader, Mr Ibrahim Rugova.

KLA leaders reasoned that after three years their army would be stronger than ever. "If all else fails, if they don't get independence then, they can always go back to war," said one British official. But once talks began, it emerged that not all delegates agreed. Hardliners wanted no compromise on the idea of independence.

This was too much for an already fractious movement: this army has been fighting for just 14 months, and a hierarchy has yet to bed down. Only on Monday did it finally appoint a single commanding general, Mr Selim Selimi. Mr Thaci found support from moderate KLA officials based among Kosovo's exile community in Germany and Switzerland.

But opposition has come from the "shop floor", in particular, KLA leaders in Drenica, the hilly central region which has seen the fiercest resistance - and suffering.

These fighters come from a tradition of Kacaks - freedom fighters-cum-brigands - who have fought Serb rule periodically throughout the century. Squabbles have also broken out among politicians on the delegation, with Mr Rugova at odds with the head of the main opposition party, the writer Mr Rechep Chosia, who has emerged as a firm Thaci backer.

Meanwhile, there are suspicions that parts of the KLA want to use its might to seize power by any means.

"There are two kinds of KLA soldier," says one Kosovo journalist, who refused to be named. "There are the guys from Drenica, and then there are the professional soldiers. I am more frightened of the professionals. They have a different agenda."

The West is also partly to blame. From June to October, it sat back while Serb forces smashed KLA units and sent 100,000 Albanians fleeing to the hills. KLA commanders say the Western powers wanted the KLA squashed then and are unimpressed by threats from US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that the KLA risks being "abandoned" by the West. "We were abandoned before - we survived," said one rebel leader.

And not just survived. The KLA is growing in strength and confidence, with a powerful financial organisation springing up among exiles in Europe and America. Many feel they can gain more on the battlefield than at the peace table.

"We hope for a good year of fundraising," said the KLA London director, Mr Pleurat Selihu. "We don't want to buy machine guns. Now the priority is anti-tank missiles."

And the Albanians, civilian and military, are learning from a past master how to exploit the weaknesses of a divided West. "They are learning from Milosevic. He never does things unless he really has to," said a Pristina journalist, Ms Evliana Berane. "If they were sure the international community was serious about that deadline they would have signed."