BYLINE: Tom Walker
MUJAHIDIN fighters have joined the Kosovo Liberation Army, dimming prospects of a peaceful solution to the conflict and fuelling fears of heightened violence next spring. The Islamic fighters created havoc in the war in Bosnia, where they were regarded as a serious threat to Western peacekeeping troops, especially Americans. Their arrival in Kosovo may force Washington to review its policy in the Serbian province and will deepen Western dismay with the KLA and its tactics. For the Albanians, the Mujahidin represent a public relations disaster; for President Milosevic of Serbia, they are a propaganda coup, enabling his regime to portray the struggle in Kosovo as a form of holy war in which the Serbs are Europe's bulwark against Islam. Although there are only a few dozen bearded young Mujahidin fighters, resplendent in new KLA uniforms, they are a startling sight in the snowbound villages of central Kosovo. On an icy track near a KLA command centre yesterday, they loomed out of the mist on a trailer pulled by a tractor churning through the snowdrifts with snow chains, before they vanished again towards bases the armed rebels are building near the strategic town of Malisevo. "Captain Dula", the local KLA commander, was clearly embarrassed at the unexpected presence of foreign journalists and said that he had little idea who was sending the Mujahidin or where they came from; only that it was neither Kosovo nor Albania. "I've got no information about them," Captain Dula said. "We don't talk about it." His comments exposed the factionalism of a guerrilla army with little overall interest in religious issues. Captain Dula, the brother of the village imam, said that he had no idea whether he was a Shia or Sunni Muslim. "You'll have to ask my brother about it," he said, erupting in laughter. American diplomats in the region, especially Robert Gelbard, the special envoy, have often expressed fears of an Islamic hardline infiltration into the Kosovo independence movement. But until now there has been little evidence of Mujahidin fighters. The Serbs have displayed a few passports and identity papers which they say they found after their offensives near the Albanian border in the summer, and members of an indigenous Kosovan Mujahidin group were arrested in mosques around the industrial town of Mitrovica. The Yugoslav Army also exhibited Korans it said it had found hidden among arms smuggled across the border. American intelligence has raised the possibility of a link between Osama bin Laden, the Saudi expatriate blamed for the bombing in August of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and the KLA. Several of Bin Laden's supporters were arrested in Tirana, the Albanian capital, and deported this summer, and the chaotic conditions in the country have allowed Muslim extremists to settle there, often under the guise of humanitarian workers. In Kosovo, US diplomatic observers are living in villages harbouring the Mujahidin, seemingly a recipe for disaster. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe may have to rethink its deployment of US "verifiers" over the coming months. It is believed that Kosovo's Mujahidin came via Bosnia, where many settled in rural areas after the war. Several groups are also held in Zenica prison by the Bosnia, which is anxious to distance itself from accusations of radical Islamic sympathies. "I interviewed one guy from Saudi Arabia who said that it was his eighth jihad," a Dutch journalist said.