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Despite NATO Rhetoric, Rebels May Be Ultimate Beneficiaries of Air War


PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — Despite the bombings, killings and angry rhetoric, NATO and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic officially agree on one thing: They oppose the drive of separatist rebels for Kosovo's independence.

But to meet the Atlantic alliance's five demands for peace, Milosevic would have to withdraw his police and troops from the province--which could hand the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, at least a partial victory when it could not triumph on its own.

As skillful a propagandist as Milosevic is, even he would have a hard time convincing the Yugoslav people that a complete withdrawal from Kosovo while the KLA survives as a fighting force was worth having suffered seven weeks of intense NATO airstrikes.

When Milosevic withdrew some of his special police and army units from Kosovo in October to avoid an initial threat of NATO bombings, the KLA--which Yugoslav commanders thought they had crushed--quickly took back territory it had lost on the battlefield.

Milosevic's regime assumes that the KLA would take advantage of the complete Yugoslav pullout that NATO is demanding now to do the same.

So while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization each day repeats that Milosevic must withdraw his forces from Kosovo and he refuses to capitulate, the war is settling into a bloody stalemate. Small rebel units launch hit-and-run attacks, Yugoslav forces depopulate more of Kosovo by driving ethnic Albanians from their homes, and NATO warplanes try to stop it all by dropping bombs from 15,000 feet.

If the air war drags on, and allied warplanes cause heavy damage to Yugoslav forces in Kosovo, the KLA may come back to haunt NATO--which insists that it wants to keep Kosovo part of Yugoslavia.

On Friday, the KLA rejected the principles for peace drafted the day before by Russia and seven Western industrial nations--known as the Group of 8--because the proposal recognizes Yugoslavia's sovereignty over Kosovo while offering some form of autonomy for the province.

The Group of 8's peace conditions include demilitarizing the KLA, but NATO's air war may be having the opposite effect by helping the KLA rearm and take new territory in Kosovo after suffering heavy losses to a brutal Yugoslav offensive during the last two months.

Milosevic's military commanders estimate that anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 KLA guerrillas are fighting for the independence of Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's dominant republic, Serbia; the Pentagon puts the number at closer to 10,000.

When Milosevic's government announced Monday that it was beginning a partial withdrawal of special police and soldiers from Kosovo, the regime nonetheless claimed it had defeated the KLA.

But reports of isolated KLA attacks on the roads are increasing, and small guerrilla units--usually of 10 or fewer fighters--continue to roam the countryside, said a senior army officer in Pristina, the provincial capital, who requested anonymity.

Almost a month ago, a day of KLA activity in Kosovo amounted to one attack near the ruined town of Malisevo, a former guerrilla stronghold southwest of Pristina, according to NATO's daily report for April 14.

On Monday, NATO reported KLA guerrilla activity in 13 enclaves, nine of which were either in or near concentrations of ethnic Albanians displaced from their homes by Yugoslav forces.

And while NATO insists that its bombing campaign is not designed to serve the KLA's interests, after several days of heavy NATO bombing along Yugoslavia's western border with Albania, KLA fighters recently seized the mountain border post of Kosare, northwest of Djakovica.

The KLA's advance across the border is crucial to opening a route for weapons, ammunition and new recruits drawn from the crowded refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia.

Meanwhile, NATO's bombers continued to strike targets across Kosovo on Tuesday.

As Serbs slept in the prosperous farming village of Staro Gracko, NATO said, several "bomblets" from a cluster bomb exploded beside three houses about 1:15 a.m.

The airstrike apparently was aimed at military forces that may have been deployed in a large park and playground, where most of the bomblets fell.

The words "Bomb Frag." were printed in black on the side of one yellow canister, along with the designation BLU-97 A/B, the standard munition in a U.S.-made CBU-87 cluster bomb.

At least three of the unexploded bomblets lay in the playground, where three empty bunkers suggested that soldiers may have been based there. But there were no signs of damage to any military vehicles Tuesday morning.

Instead, 4-year-old Dragan Dimic was dead, along with the boy's neighbors, Bosko Jankovic, 60, and his wife, Jevrosima, 59. Their bodies lay smeared with dried blood where they fell at the edge of their small front patio.

The couple's dog died too, and its body was surrounded by small cluster bomb craters in a yard where chickens clucked and pecked for insects in the freshly turned earth.

A couple of hundred yards away, Milan Seslija was pouring buckets of water on the smoldering roof of his parents' farmhouse to douse the last embers.

His 70-year-old father, Okica, was fighting for his life in a hospital, with severe burns and shrapnel wounds. He fell into a blazing pile of hay when one of the cluster bomblets exploded outside the house.

"There was an explosion and he said, 'I have to go free the cattle,' " said Okica Seslija's wife, Stana, 63. "I told him, 'Who cares about the cattle now?'

"Then there was another explosion and suddenly a fire. I started to scream and Milan came and dragged him out of the fire. He was all bloody."


All of Paul Watson's dispatches from Kosovo are available on The Times' Web site at

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