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Kosovo's rebels rebuilding army; Guerrillas: Ethnic Albanian fighters are lying low and making preparations, in case negotiations fail to bring peace to Serbia.


PODUJEVO, Yugoslavia -- Inside a snow-covered farmhouse set deep in Kosovo's countryside, the rebel commander known as Remi watches television, waits for orders and prepares for the springtime killing season.

Negotiations have begun in France to end Kosovo's conflict, but Remi and the Kosovo Liberation Army are steeling themselves for the thaw. They follow the talks and are hopeful they will succeed, on their terms. In case they don't, the ethnic Albanians care for their weapons, holding fast to their aim of Kosovo's independence from Serbia.

"At the moment, the most important thing is to rebuild, reform and get my army strong," Remi says.

Negotiators at Rambouillet, France -- Serb, Kosovar, American, British and French -- are trying against heavy odds to broker a three-year interim agreement for Kosovo in which the province would remain part of Serbia while NATO troops keep the warring sides from clashing.

The fighting that erupted last summer left about 2,000 dead and 300,000 homeless. NATO peacekeepers presumably would prevent such a tragedy from happenning again.

"If they come, they are welcome," Remi says of NATO troops.

But in the end, he says, the KLA will emerge victorious.

"We will maybe fight for three years or have three years of waiting," he says. "We give diplomacy three years to solve this problem."

This is part of the new confidence among the KLA fighters.

Last summer, the rebels were outgunned, outmaneuvered and nearly overwhelmed by Serbian forces. The KLA behaved then as if land was wealth. Instead, the black soil became the KLA's burial ground, as the guerrilla force was stretched to the breaking point in a doomed attempt to hold vast territory against heavily armed units engaged in a scorched-earth campaign.

"We never thought we had won," Remi says. "It was more journalist propaganda. We didn't think in terms of controlling a percentage of territory in Kosovo."

During its winter hibernation, the KLA licked its wounds, retreating to remote corners in a rugged region. Where once the rebels wore sneakers and scuffed shoes, many now have military boots. Old hunting rifles have been replaced with newer Kalashnikovs. Many rebels like to show off their cache of rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The KLA has been restocked by arms smuggled across the Albanian border.

Remi says the force has received U.S.-made equipment and arms from Pakistan and even Serbia.

"The Serbs have good weapons," Remi says. "Of course, we captured them."

Recruits are put through their paces at a training base tucked in the mountains. Funded from abroad, the initial KLA recruits came from ethnic Albanian exile communities across Europe and, in some cases, the United States. But with increasing anger against rule from Belgrade, the KLA snapped up willing young men from Kosovo's hardscrabble cities.

A square-jawed 27-year-old with a shock of brown hair, Remi is a former law student who once carried books to class. Now, he goes to work packing a sidearm.

As a draftee, Remi fought for the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army during the war in Croatia in the early 1990s. He says he fought at Vukovar, where Serbian and Croatian forces pulverized the city, attacking civilians instead of each other.

The Serbs now label as terrorists rebels such as Remi.

"Terrorism was what I did back in Vukovar in the Yugoslav army," he says. "Terrorism is what I would call people who come from Serbia to fight for something that is not theirs. It is all the massacres they are doing. It is bombs in Pristina. If you call terrorism fighting for your country and killing your enemy, then I am a terrorist."

More faith than weaponry

The KLA still seems to be built more on faith than arms. And as with many rebel outfits in their fledgling years, there is the sense of a gang that can't shoot straight. Some of the fighters carry hunting knives strapped to their legs. Others wear farmer overalls over mismatched camouflage uniforms.

But with ethnic Albanians outnumbering Serbs by a 9-to-1 ratio in Kosovo, it would be a mistake to discount the KLA's power and ability to achieve its goal of independence.

The group has picked up recruits such as 26-year-old Lirak Celaj, a former actor, whose closest brush with fighting has been to play a wounded KLA soldier in a recent, locally produced movie called "Stoicism." Apparently, his portrayal was so realistic that his fellow soldiers and commander asked if he was healthy.

Celaj's closest friends didn't know he had joined the rebels until they saw him interviewed by the British Broadcasting Corp.

"My friends called and said, 'Oh, that's what happened to you. Why didn't you tell us?' " Celaj says with a smile.

But he is serious about his goals.

"I don't think we will stop until we get independence," he says. "We can't live with the Serbs."

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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