My Six Nights with the Kla; There Were Fisnik and Gani from London and Pierre from the Foreign Legion Who Told Me I'd Be Dead within 24 Hours. They Had Come to Join the Kosovo Liberation Army Which - Whatever Milosevic Says - Is Fighting Back. and the French Legionnaire? Later I Saw His Body. He Had Been Killed by a Serb Sniper's Bullet

Article excerpt

Byline: RICHARD PENDLEBURY

WE CAME across him in a sunlit meadow of long grass and yellow flowers. Even in the middle of a battle it was still shocking that on a warm, spring morning death had taken the Serb paramilitary soldier and cast him so grotesquely.

But in this place no one lingers except the dead. Morbid contemplation was swiftly dispelled when the next shell fell among the trees with a hollow thump.

Far below lay a plain of Gjakova, the so-called 'killing fields', where hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians have been made homeless or murdered by Serbian security forces.

Up here, in the wooded valleys and hillsides of south-western Kosovo, revenge is being taken; my dead soldier was bloody confirmation that the hunters have become the hunted.

Milosevic may claim that the Kosovo Liberation Army is a defeated force, but I have witnessed at first hand that the opposite is true - that it is thriving, high in morale and fighting back. I even saw platoons singing as they went into battle.

Last week I crossed the border from Albania to witness the largely unseen ground war of the Balkan crisis, between the Serb military and the KLA.

Given unprecedented access by the KLA, Daily Mail photographer Brian Bould and I travelled farther into the horror-stricken republic than any journalist since the air war began. Passing homes burnt in the first wave of ethnic cleansing, my six-day journey took me into frontline positions around the village of Batusha. Here is the newly won extremity of the KLA thrust from Albania into Kosovo, and the scene of the bitterest fighting.

THIS is not a campaign of swift guerilla attacks which melt into the night. It is a grinding, near-stalemate of dugouts, snipers, machinegun nests, artillery barrages and alleged use of poisoned gas.

A large, modern Serbian army with a soldiery demoralised and unable to mass or make use of its technological advantages because of Nato air attack is facing a poorly trained, impulsive force, lacking sufficient heavy weaponry but with superb morale.

This balance has left the KLA with a bridgehead ten miles wide at its base by some six deep at the tip.

The struggle to link up with its forces in the interior seems, as one battalion commander admitted, 'more like the Western Front' than a late 20th century military confrontation.

I had entered the border zone at night in a KLA military vehicle captured from the Yugoslav Army. The jeep lights were killed each time we traversed a section of road overlooked by Serb artillery observers.

My companions were two new KLA recruits on their way to the front, and they could not have been more different.

The western idealist was Giovanni, a bearded little hunter from the Italian Alps. He had climbed the Matterhorn and walked Ben Nevis, but has spent much of the last seven years on humanitarian relief work within the former Yugoslavia.

'Now I realise all my work was useless,' he explained. 'To bring peace I must be a soldier and hunt down the Serbs as if they were wild goats.' His passion was somewhat diminished by being handed a sniping rifle which was first used by the Russian Army in 1917.

For much of our journey, Giovanni's liberal sentiments had been shouted down by Ali, a Moroccan living in Norway. For him, and other Arab volunteers, the Kosovan crisis was a Jihad, a holy war for the protection of Islam against a Christian tyrant.

But those who fear that the KLA will produce a fundamentalist state in Europe fail to understand that the Albanians are perhaps the most secular Moslems in the world.

We arrived, under shellfire, at the KLA's forward communications base - an artillery-battered farm in the grey area which spans the Albanian border.

In an equipment-cluttered room upstairs, I found the KLA battlefield communications headquarters.

It was run by two ethnic Albanians from London. …