By Michael RoddySpring may be new season of Kosovo trouble
(Rtr) - From a windswept outpost on a hillside in eastern Kosovo, KFOR peacekeepers may be looking down on a future battleground between Serbs and ethnic Albanians.
Just beyond Outpost Sapper, a heavily dug-in observation post on the Kosovo-Serbia boundary, U.S. soldiers from the multi-national peacekeeping force monitor a group of ethnic Albanians wearing uniforms with insignia and toting AK-47 assault rifles in Dobrosin, one of several mostly Albanian towns in Serbia's fertile Presevo Valley.
The armed men remind some people of the early days of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), whose fight with Serb forces helped spark the NATO air war in Yugoslavia last year.
Little is known about the numbers, aims or leadership of the new group, which calls itself the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB), for the three mostly Albanian towns which lie inside Serbia.
But the UCPMB's presence is a disquieting sign as the Balkan winter turns to spring, the usual season for regional flare-ups.
Trouble has been brewing for some time across the border from Kosovo in southern Serbia. An attack on a Serb police checkpoint was reported recently in the Yugoslav media, which said one Serb policeman and one Albanian were killed.
A courthouse was bombed and there have been other acts of violence - just as there were before the Kosovo war exploded.
WAVE OF REFUGEES FEARED
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) has prepared a worst-case scenario in which the estimated 70,000 ethnic Albanians living in the Presevo Valley decide to flee to Kosovo. More than 6,000 of them have come over to Kosovo from the Serbian side since last summer.
"We don't call it an influx, we just call them arrivals," said Vanessa Mattar, a UNHCR field worker in the eastern town of Gnjilane.
"We're very cautious with our terminology...but we're prepared," she said.
A new outbreak of violence just outside the province is the last thing a still-turbulent Kosovo needs. In northern Kosovo, Serbs and ethnic Albanians remain locked in a stalemate for control of the mining city of Kosovska Mitrovica.
Veton Surroi, the activist editor of the leading Kosovo daily Koha Ditore, said another rebellion would hurt the province's chance to rebuild and perhaps someday become independent.
"Some Kosovars who have a romantic notion of igniting (trouble) in two or three villages and then inviting NATO in are dead wrong about that," Surroi said.
The soldiers at Outpost Sapper estimate there are about 30 armed men in Dobrosin who claim to be a security force formed when most of the 1,400 inhabitants fled after the killing - blamed on Serb police - of two woodcutters in January.
The peacekeepers do not have an estimate of how many fighters there may be in other villages. But some professed members of the Dobrosin group clearly have more than village security on their minds.
"I'm very good at going to war," Shefhet Nuredin Huseini, 57, a Dobrosin resident and a self-described leader of the new armed group, told reporters in a brief interview recently at a hotel in the nearby Kosovo town of Gnjilane.
Some members talk about wresting the region they call "eastern Kosovo" away from southern Serbia to right a wrong they say was committed during border realignments of the past.
But they are publicly getting the cold shoulder from anybody in a position to help them, from the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force all the way to the nascent Kosovo Albanian civilian authority, which includes former KLA leaders.
Although some of the new fighters brandish Kosovo Liberation Army identity cards along with their AK-47s, former leaders of the KLA say they have nothing to do with them.
"We and the international community are observing the situation in order to solve the problems of citizens who are living there, to prevent armed confrontations," said Hashim Thaqi, former KLA political chief. He is now head of the Kosovo provincial government working in the shadow of the United Nations, which runs civil affairs in Kosovo.
But diplomatic sources say things probably aren't that simple, given the strong clan loyalties and KLA ties that bind.
"Hardheaded nationalists will find it tough to resist sending them a vanful of weapons, even if they don't know how to use them," said one Western diplomat with long experience in the region.
The U.N.'s effort at running post-war Kosovo, even by the admission of its own top officials, has been underfunded by the nations which backed it and undermined by continuing ethnic strife.
NO NEW BATTLEFRONTS NEEDED
The flashpoint city of Mitrovica is the embodiment of how difficult the task has been and how little the peacekeepers want to see another front opened up.
Last week, Serbs rioted when peacekeepers escorted 41 Albanians back to their homes in an apartment complex in the mainly Serb north of the city.
The Albanians had been whisked past stone-throwing Serbs in a huge military operation to get them back to homes they had fled after violence in the district last month.
The return of the Albanian families, in a convoy of armoured troop carriers, was seen as an important test of the will of NATO and the United Nations in standing up to Serb resistance.
The Americans running the observation post at the province's eastern boundary are now just as firm in saying peacekeepers will not be a party to clashes between ethnic-Albanian villagers and Yugoslav police.
After villagers reported a firefight between police and the UCPMB that sent 70-100 Dobrosin residents fleeing past Outpost Sapper into Kosovo, Lieutenant-Colonel Jeffrey Snow said his forces were not going to be drawn into the conflict.
"The UCPMB is telling folks that they have the support of KFOR, the United States, and I want to tell this particular audience that the United States, KFOR and the international community does not support an insurgency," Snow told reporters.
"In fact we will do everything within our powers to prevent that insurgency from crossing over into this area of responsibility."
KFOR and the U.N. have said repeatedly that what they want for Kosovo is a secure environment so that industry, agriculture and commerce, crippled by war and years of neglect, can be re-established.
The continuation of near-anarchic conditions in Kosovo only plays into the hands of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, whose envoys have been saying in world forums that the peacekeeping operation in Kosovo has failed.