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Sunday, June 28, 1998 Published at 12:41 GMT 13:41 UK

World: Europe

The KLA - terrorists or freedom fighters?

Albanian arms trader in Tropoja, northern Albania - one of the logistic bases of the KLA

By BBC's Nened Sebak in Belgrade:

The United States special envoy to the Balkans, Robert Gelbard, held talks on Friday with two men who claim they are political leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

But only a few months ago Ambassador Gelbard described the KLA as a terrorist organisation.

"I know a terrorist when I see one and these men are terrorists," he said earlier this year.

At the time, the KLA was believed to number just several hundred armed men.

Mr Gelbard's words were interpreted in the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade, as a green light for a security forces operation against the KLA and the special police conducted two raids in the Benitsar region in March.

Almost 100 people were killed, many of them women and children.

Growing popularity

But instead of crushing the KLA these operations have swelled their ranks beyond belief.

By May they had cut off the main east-west road in Kosovo and are right now believed to control about 40% of the territory in the town.

For months Washington tried to shore up the reputation and influence of Ibrahim Rugova who has been waging a peaceful campaign for a secession of Kosovo for almost a decade.

The Rescue Rugova operation included a visit to the White House but a handshake with President Clinton did not work on the ground where Mr Rugova has steadily been losing influence.

Political earthquake

The Kosovo Liberation Army have become freedom fighters and national heroes for most ethnic Albanians.

It is too early to say if the contacts between the US government and the KLA represent a shift in Washington's policies.

But it is certainly a political earthquake in Kosovo and Serbia and will probably also irritate Moscow which is describing the KLA as terrorists.

The KLA advocate not just a secession of Kosovo but the unification of all Albanians and the forming of the greater Albania, which would also include a part of Macedonia.

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