A Desperate Fight For a Key Outpost

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Since early April, the Kosovo Liberation Army has been locked in its biggest, most important battle: an attempt by many of its most elite, experienced soldiers to open a corridor into Kosovo through the snow-swept mountains of northern Albania. Last week hundreds of fighters attacked and captured a small, six-hut Serbian border post at Kosare and swept through a nearby Serbian army barracks. The goal, commanders said, was to reach as many as 20,000 refugees stranded near the border and create a bridgehead that would allow the rebel army to set up bases inside Kosovo. But the bloody victory was a reminder that, Western hopes notwithstanding, the K.L.A. is still woefully short of experience.

The road to Kosare rises along a nearly impassable dirt track rutted by farm tractors pulling loads of ammunition up the slopes. From the road it is easy to spot Serb-held towns in the valley below, many marked by rising columns of smoke. Ammunition boxes are stacked in small crevices. Soldiers huddle near fires made from the empty crates. Serbian shells scream continuously, reverberating through the canyons. Soldiers, some in uniform, others in track suits, carry everything from bolt-action carbines to Kalashnikovs. There are two questions: Where is the commander, and where are the Serbs?

Zehir Kryeziu, 29, is a former car painter in Germany who, with two days' training, was thrown into the battle on Wednesday. Lying in a grimy hospital bed in nearby Bajram Curri, still wearing his mud-caked uniform, he says he was carrying supplies to the assault forces when he was hit in the groin with shrapnel. "I had to walk for 24 hours holding my wound closed," he says. "When I got out of Kosovo I had to stop a local car and persuade the driver to take me to the hospital."

Like many other soldiers, Kryeziu is frustrated by the K.L.A.'s disorganization. "Do we have good officers? If you mean someone who tells you to stand there and fire, then we have good officers," he says sarcastically. "I went into battle with a single-shot rifle and 40 bullets. It wasn't enough." Says Arlind Ismailukaj, an Albanian official: "They barely know how to use their Kalashnikovs. Last week they sent in a patrol of 24 men, and 20 were killed. The Serbs are smart and fight with artillery from a distance."

A few miles away, at the main staging area in Albania, Jackie, 16, and her brother, 14, wait to go back down the mountain. Dressed in army pants, a black jacket and a beret, she looks more like a cheerleader than a soldier. With a quick smile and long brown hair that she constantly flips over her shoulder, she says she was among the refugees who came through Kukes three weeks ago and, against her parents' wishes, joined the K.L.A. She had two weeks of training, and is now fighting at the front. "I fired a lot of rounds today. Of course I killed," she says. But another soldier, reflecting on Jackie, her brother and the thousands of other green recruits arriving to fight, is more cynical. "This is what we have: a lot of people willing to die, but few who know how to fight."