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[KDN] TorStar: 'Why are soldiers firing at Albania?'

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  • Daniel Dostanic
    THE TORONTO STAR, Tuesday, June 1, 1999 p. A10 Crisis in the Balkans `Why are soldiers firing at Albania? Border residents live in fear as lines of war become
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 1, 1999
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      THE TORONTO STAR, Tuesday, June 1, 1999 p. A10

      Crisis in the Balkans

      `Why are soldiers firing at Albania?'

      Border residents live in fear as lines of war become blurred

      By Olivia Ward
      Toronto Star European Bureau

      BARHOC, Albania - A rocket with a tail of fire arcs lazily over the
      mountainside, landing with a blast and a puff of smoke on the opposite
      peak.

      The village schoolchildren scarcely blink as they stand watching the
      Albanian army on its manoeuvres a few kilometres from Kosovo, where NATO
      bombers are launching barrages of missiles at real targets.

      ``Why are the soldiers firing at Albania?'' asks an 8-year-old girl
      named Donuta, pointing toward the nearby border. ``That's where Serbia
      is.''

      On the rugged Albanian border, nearly 70 days into the air war against
      Yugoslavia, even children are aware that the current military strategy
      to force an end to Serbia's massive deportation campaign in Kosovo isn't
      working.

      Not only are refugees flooding into Albania from wrecked towns and
      villages, but the frontier post where they used to cross to safety is
      now in danger of attack from Yugoslav forces.

      As the war spreads along the entire northern border, and villages as
      far as 10 kilometres inland are threatened, local anger is simmering.

      ``We know that the aid agencies are starting to evacuate refugees from
      this area because it's not safe for them,'' says Kutim Dauti, of the
      nearby village of Gjegjan. ``We're also poor and in danger. Who's going
      to help us?''

      Hundreds of Albanians have already answered the question for
      themselves, packing their belongings and moving farther from the border.
      They are now internally displaced people, joining the 100,000 ethnic
      Albanian Kosovars seeking refuge in the northern mountains.

      The villagers have fled Yugoslav attacks on the borders that have left
      several dead and wounded and homes burnt by marauding troops.

      This week a father and daughter were killed by shelling in the village
      of Cahan, and a Chilean journalist was wounded by a Yugoslav sniper at
      the Morine border point.

      The attacks were part of a new offensive by the Yugoslavs against
      separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrillas who use parts of the
      border as staging points for fighting inside Kosovo.

      The KLA have been sheltered, and in some cases abetted, by Albania in
      their quest to free Kosovo from Serbian control. But they have neither
      the resources nor the interest to defend it.

      ``That is the responsibility of the Albanian government and army,''
      said a KLA spokesperson.

      But at the headquarters of the threadbare Albanian army's northern
      command, Brig.-Gen. Kudasi Lama has other orders.

      ``For 20 months the situation has been very tense here,'' he admits
      with an edge of exasperation. ``The Yugoslav army has crossed twice with
      tanks and heavy weapons. They went deep inside the border area. But we
      are trying not to be drawn into the war.''

      Each night, when the fighting is at its height, Lama sits by his red
      telephone waiting for calls that may dramatically change all that.

      Twice this month, after the invasions, the brusque, burly commander
      sent troops to the front and drove the Yugoslavs back.

      He believes Serbia - the main partner in the Federal Republic of
      Yugoslavia and engineer of the mass expulsions of Kosovar Albanians - is
      trying to open a new war front that will distract attention from Kosovo.

      ``The main reason for starting this war is that the Kosovo problem will
      be suddenly dark,'' he says. ``The West is very much afraid of a big
      Balkan war. If they see it happening, Kosovo will become secondary.''

      With or without an expanding conflict, it's easy to see that Lama has
      one of the worst jobs in the Balkans.

      Above Barhoc, in one of the army's newly planted camps near the border,
      troops in 1990s sunglasses squint over equipment gleaned from China in
      the 1960s, and a smattering of outmoded Russian items.

      ``If those Chinese tanks get anywhere near the Serbs the exhaust will
      choke them to death,'' said a Western military observer. ``And if that
      doesn't get them, their eardrums will blow out from the noise.''

      When Albania's draconian brand of communism collapsed, and the shaky
      new capitalist economy crumbled in 1997, riots swept the country.

      At least three-quarters of the troops deserted, military storehouses
      were looted, and many of the army's guns and moveable arms disappeared.

      Morale in the army is now at rock bottom. The draft has become a joke,
      and families routinely save and borrow to buy their sons out of national
      service.

      NATO has offered to help modernize military equipment, but there is
      little sign of that here. The cash-strapped military doesn't even have
      the money to pay its electricity bills, and its 16 outposts run on local
      goodwill.

      But that is drying up fast, as Albanians feel increasingly vulnerable.

      No one is more aware of the army's desperate problems than Lama. As the
      war in Kosovo spreads, with no end in sight, he sees only two possible
      solutions.

      ``Either arm the KLA, or send in NATO ground troops,'' he snaps.

      Outgunned and probably outmanned by the Yugoslav forces, Serbian police
      and paramilitaries (estimated at more than 100,000 people), the
      guerrillas have little chance of winning back Kosovo by themselves.

      Bands of fighters have managed to clear a corridor into southwestern
      Kosovo. But up against the big guns of the Yugoslav army, it's difficult
      for them to hold the territory.

      What the KLA lack in technical skills and arms, they make up for with
      numbers. An aggressive recruiting program continues, and embittered men
      who have lost relatives and homes in Kosovo are willing to risk their
      lives for victory and revenge.

      NATO is against sponsoring the KLA because of doubts about their
      radicalism and reputed connections with crime. The West fears a KLA
      victory could put them out of control, and result in a military-based
      government bent on redrawing the borders of the Balkans.

      In Albania, the KLA are already a law unto themselves, looked upon with
      a mixture of respect, fear and resentment. They control areas reserved
      for training camps and impose their own rules and discipline independent
      of Albanian laws.

      Meanwhile, there are increasing signs that, even while Western leaders
      deny a NATO ground campaign is being planned against Serbia, it is
      already happening here. The common wisdom is that Macedonia would be the
      beachhead for a NATO invasion force because of its better-developed road
      system and less problematical supply lines. But nervous about Serbian
      retaliation, Macedonia has resisted. News that a NATO peacekeeping
      force, which would only enter Kosovo after a settlement was reached,
      would be doubled to about 48,000 troops, has been greeted stonily in
      Skopje.

      Uncertain of Macedonia's co-operation, Western military planners have
      spent more than a month surveying Albania as an alternative route. There
      are increasing signs that logistical planning is already underway.

      The movement of refugees from the border area, organized by NATO
      working with U.N. relief agencies, is speeding up as fighting flares
      through the frontier. Within a month, the majority will likely be gone.

      That would clear the way for the first troops. And the speedy expansion
      of a 53-year-old air strip near Kukes would allow for transport of
      troops and equipment. With few other alternatives, military strategists
      appear to be setting aside worries that Albania's forbidding terrain and
      collapsing roads are too difficult for launching ground forces.

      ``I have long experience here, and I can tell you it's easier to fight
      in this territory than in a flat field,'' Lama says.

      ``Mountains are good for the military, if you know what you're doing.''

      But he warns, it would be a mistake to underestimate the Yugoslav army,
      which he believes is still strong and well-equipped after more than two
      months of NATO bombing.

      ``We know there is damage, but how much is impossible to estimate,'' he
      says. ``We also know they have a lot of heavy weapons, and they have
      even reinforced their weaponry.''

      Refugees in Kosovo are increasingly used as human shields, Lama says.
      And as the air strikes have intensified, Yugoslav troops have broken up
      into small units, hiding in local houses and buildings, threaded amongst
      civilians.

      He stops short of saying that NATO has waited too long in its plans for
      ground troops, which would take at least two months to muster.

      In Albania, any criticism of NATO is kept under wraps. For most people
      here, the Western alliance is the best, if not the only hope of ending
      the war.

      As the Albanian military manoeuvres continue at Barhoc, and artillery
      fire clatters off the rock faces of the notorious Accursed Mountains,
      American military vehicles climb above the line of tanks and disappear.

      The little girls watching the manoeuvres with perplexed faces turn and
      break into smiles.

      ``Natto, Natto!'' they chant.

      And they point once again toward the Serbian border.

      ``Natto in Serbia,'' says Donuta. ``War finished.''


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