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KLA Boldly Sets Up in Pristina

June 14, 1999

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Boldly flying the red-and-black Albanian flag, the Kosovo Liberation Army has emerged from the underground and set up an office in Pristina, the provincial capital and center of Serb authority in the province.

In a sign of welcome from residents of the ethnic Albanian neighborhood of Vranjevac, flowers were heaped on the doorstep of the primary school, where the rebels have opened their office. Like the guerrillas, the residents are emerging from hiding, too.

``I didn’t realize so many people were still here,″ said Merita Ahmeti, a 27-year-old lawyer who spent that last 12 weeks either on the run or in hiding.

Masked Serb police went door-to-door through this neighborhood in late March, forcing people out at gunpoint. Ahmeti said she knows of at least three people they shot to death, including a young boy.

Some were herded to the railway station and put on trains out of the country, while others fled to the countryside, including Ahmeti and her family.

After two weeks on the run, they returned to Vranjevac, where they cowered in hiding until NATO troops arrived in Kosovo over the weekend and Serb forces began withdrawing. NATO troops deployed in Vranjevac Sunday.

``I cannot describe how I felt when I saw NATO,″ Ahmeti said. ``I cried tears of happiness.″

On Sunday, the KLA moved into the Zenel Aydini primary school in Vranjevac, establishing its own presence alongside NATO’s.

The guerrillas are not openly armed, nor are they in uniform. But they are wearing their dog tags and red armbands, and the commander of the Pristina sector, Sali Mustafa, presides over what they call their ``representational office.″

People gathered outside, basking in the freedom to move about and a sense of security endowed by the NATO tanks that have moved into Vranjevac and the presence of the KLA, which sees itself as the protector of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians.

Children sped by on bicycles, mothers pushed babies in strollers, men gathered in clumps to chat and smoke.

``I came here just to see the flag,″ Ahmeti said as she stood outside the gates of the school building.

There were other visitors, too: two NATO officers.

The 28-year-old KLA commander, Mustafa, told reporters later the officers ``needed information so they could make contact with the main KLA headquarters.″ He said NATO was ``trying to establish relations″ with the rebel army.

The KLA’s bold presence has made itself felt elsewhere in Kosovo. It isn’t clear how NATO will handle the rebels’ bid to claim a role alongside international peacekeepers or what it will do about demilitarizing them.

The rebels, who are fighting for independence from Serbia, show no eagerness to put down their weapons.

Mustafa said NATO could not provide security on its own and the KLA was not ready to lay down its arms. Serb and secret police, he said, were still in Pristina, armed but not in uniform.

But he said the KLA will not carry out revenge killings, something the Serbs deeply fear. Thousands of Serbs have fled Kosovo on the heels of their departing army.

The Serb Media Center in Pristina has reported a number of KLA attacks since the withdrawal began. And the rebels were still in control of the Belacevac coal mine, six miles from Pristina, on Monday. They took four Serb workers hostage when they seized the mine on Saturday.

Yugoslav government representatives are pressing NATO to help free the hostages and disarm the KLA.

Mustafa drew a sharp distinction Monday between the ``representational″ office in the school building and the KLA’s military headquarters here. But he also said the two may be merged soon, yet another sign of their determination to grab a large role in postwar Kosovo.

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