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World - Europe

KLA goes from splinter group to potential giant-killer

March 24, 1999
Web posted at: 9:16 p.m. EST (0216 GMT)

(CNN) -- The Kosovo Liberation Army is an unlikely catalyst for NATO's first attack on a sovereign nation in its 50-year history.

Just a year ago, the KLA was a tiny, militant splinter group that wanted Kosovo's independence from Serbia, at a time when most of the province's residents had more modest political ambitions.

Of Kosovo's 2.1 million people, 90 percent are ethnic Albanians who complain Belgrade has shut their schools, suppressed their language and ignored their political rights. For years, ethnic Albanian politicians have demanded Belgrade restore the autonomy that was stripped from them in 1991 by Slobodan Milosevic, president of the rump Yugoslav Republic made up of Serbia and Montenegro.

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Due to its small size, modest equipment and lack of popular support, the KLA was never seen as a serious threat.

However, in 1997 it began killing Serb police and others who collaborated with the Serbs. It also drove Serbs entirely out of some areas.

In February 1998, the government struck back. Milosevic sent troops into the areas controlled by the KLA, destroying property and killing 80 Kosovars, including women, children and elderly men. The killing provoked riots in Pristina, the Kosovar capital, and again raised the specter of ethnic cleansing by the Serbs, like that in Bosnia's recent past.

By the first week of March, the Yugoslav and Serbian forces had wiped out what was believed to be the core of the KLA, a single family in the village of Prekaz headed by rebel leader Adem Jashari.

But the crackdown backfired badly.

Within weeks, the KLA's ranks swelled with fighters, the government attacks escalated, and tens upon tens of thousands of Kosovars fled their homes.

While the Serb-led offensive drove the KLA out of virtually all its strongholds, it also encouraged a massive flow of weaponry from neighboring Albania in support of the rebels.

And it encouraged militants to attack Serb soldiers and civilians as a way of escalating the conflict and drawing in NATO to back them up.

In September, NATO issued an ultimatum to halt the fighting. Belgrade appeared to back down, withdrawing some of its troops.

Richard Holbrooke eased the situation, and thousands of Kosovars returned to their burned and battered villages.

When the KLA fighters returned under cover of the cease- fire, the guerrilla group had changed. Many analysts saw it as better organized and certainly better armed than ever before.

It had also changed its tactics to reflect its strengths and exploit its enemies' weaknesses.

In January, the KLA took eight government soldiers hostage, triggering new violence.

Within days, the killing of 45 ethnic Albanians in the village of Racak, condemned as a "massacre" by international observers on the scene, galvanized Western opinion. A consensus grew in NATO that the two sides would be forced into a peace agreement, either by moral suasion or military force.

When the KLA signed onto the peace accord that NATO had written -- and which contained provisions that Milosevic had rejected out of hand -- they won their battle for de facto NATO support.

Milosevic declared he would rather be bombed than give up Kosovo and allow NATO troops to deploy there.

CNN's Jim Clancy contributed to this report.

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Federal Republic of Yugoslavia - Facts
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NATO Official Homepage
Kosova Liberation Peace Movement
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