The life and death of Bogoljug Staletovic went largely unnoticed among the broader humanitarian tragedy of the Kosovo crisis. Yet the ambush that killed the popular Serb police commander three months ago illustrates the ambiguities of a complicated regional ethnic conflict that has since exploded into a full-scale Balkan tragedy.
Staletovic, a 31-year-old Serb who regarded himself a friend of Albanians in the southern Kosovo town of Kachanik, had earned respect from all local ethnic groups for his even-handed approach.
But on February 28, a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) unit ambushed the police chief as he visited a station in the nearby village of Gajre. Staletovic was killed instantly; four of his men were seriously wounded.
During Stalevotic's burial in his home village of Berezovce two days later, the funeral procession comprised some 7,000 mourners, many of them Albanians. Refugees who later arrived from the region said their trouble with the police started the day Staletovic died.
Serbian leaders in Belgrade have claimed that in the weeks prior to the final breakdown of the Rambouillet peace talks earlier this year, KLA leaders had embarked on a calculated campaign of assassinations and assaults on Serb police with the aim of provoking retaliatory measures that would hasten NATO intervention in Kosovo.
Between February 25 and the day NATO's bombing began on March 24, the Yugoslav Foreign Ministry reported 71 KLA attacks on Serbian policemen and other police targets.
What exactly was the KLA up to when it started attacking police units with the knowledge Serb forces would strike back - almost certainly against civilians? Since NATO bombing began, Balkan conspiracy theorists have been in overdrive. The KLA, they say, knew its only hope of taking control of Kosovo was to ride to power on the back of NATO tanks, and therefore wanted to sabotage any potential peace deal.
There is much uncertainty in Washington and Europe about the extent to which the KLA should be officially supported. But as the NATO bombing campaign grinds on with little evidence that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is about to yield, the KLA's popularity as a potential ground force has increased dramatically in the West. KLA guerrillas, however, have yet to show themselves as a potent military force.
Separating myth from reality in the KLA guerrilla army is a daunting task, even for military experts. Troop estimates compiled in March by U.S. army intelligence indicate the organization has between 12,000 and 20,000 soldiers. Units are divided into small cells, consisting of a few hundred trained commandos, and even smaller groups of three to five men.
"Most of [the] KLA's core members are professionally trained former Yugoslav army soldiers and former members of the Internal State Security Service," one U.S. report says. But the forces also include "former members of the Albanian military, as well as about 1,000 foreign mercenaries from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Croatia and Bosnia."
On May 3, Agim Ceku, a former Croatian army brigadier wounded while fighting against Yugoslavia in 1993, was named as the KLA's chief-of-staff.
If sketching the KLA's profile is tricky, tracking its finances is well nigh impossible. Some of its cash is assumed to originate from Iran, while a big chunk comes from donations gathered among the Albanian diaspora, mostly in Europe. Drug trafficking probably accounts for some of the cash flow-as it does many things in Albania, where law and order broke down following the collapse of pyramid schemes in 1997.
Police forces in three Western European countries, together with Europol, the European police authority, are separately investigating growing evidence that drug money is financing the KLA's leap from obscurity to power.
A significant amount of the money financing the KLA's activities is believed to have originated from legitimate sources such as the People's Movement of Kosovo, the political wing of the resistance movement. About 500,000 Kosovar Albanians live in Western Europe, and many send money home to help fund legitimate concerns such as healthcare. But some of the cash is believed to be siphoned off to help fund the military.
As well as diverting charitable donations from exiled Kosovars, some KLA money is thought to come from drug dealing. One western intelligence report quoted by Berliner Zeitung says that DM900 million has reached Kosovo since the guerrillas began operations and half that sum is said to be illegal drug money.
Police sources in Germany are frank about their suspicions. They note that a sudden ascendancy of Kosovar Albanians in the heroin trade in Switzerland, Germany and Scandinavia coincides with the sudden growth of the KLA from a ragamuffin peasants' army two years ago to a 20,000-strong force equipped with grenade launchers, anti-tank weapons and AK47 automatic rifles.
The KLA's military leadership seems as balkanized as the region's geography. The KLA's two political leaders seem to devote more energy to their ambitions in the post-conflict political order than to the war itself.
Bujar Bukoshi, a 51-year-old urologist legitimately elected prime minister of the Kosovo regional government in 1989, charges that his effort to open a corridor into Kosovo by military means in late April failed after KLA troops loyal to a rival commander refused to join in the battle.
That commander is Hashim Taci, a 29-year-old Swiss-educated intellectual who until now has run his own government in exile out of Tirana, and recently rented quarters in an office in Toronto, Canada. While Bukoshi flies back and forth between Albania and his headquarters in Bonn, Taci stays with his forces in Kukes, Albania.
Divisions in the KLA leadership are reflected in Albania, where the main opposition Democratic party led by former president Sali Berisha refuses to recognize the temporary Kosovar government cobbled together at Rambouillet under Taci's leadership.
The Albanian Democratic Party has closer ties to the president of the League for a Democratic Kosovo (LDK), Ibrahim Rugova. The LDK, under its prime minister in exile, Bujar Bukoshi, controls the purse strings to the considerable funds raised in recent years by the Albanian diaspora. Bukoshi has understandably been reluctant to provide much funding for the KLA, accusing it of Marxist tendencies and muttering darkly that a KLA controlled Kosovo would be a "Cuba in Europe."
To date, refugees from Kosovo have been too wretched to notice the power struggle taking place in the leadership group. But when they do start paying attention, it will mean yet another headache for NATO.