Kosovo anniversary could spell trouble

By Kurt Schork

March 13, 2000

(AFP) - Slobodan Milosevic could be stirring unrest in Kosovo to embarrass the international community on the forthcoming first anniversary of NATO air strikes against Yugoslav forces, diplomats said on Sunday.

"(Yugoslav President) Milosevic is eager to show that the international intervention in Kosovo is to no avail and failing," said Ambassador Daan Everts, head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Kosovo.

"Milosevic would love to engineer a debacle for us...He is working to keep Mitrovica a constant flashpoint and the Presevo Valley in turmoil. His hand and his aim are clear. The question is: how manageable are those two problem areas?"

Mitrovica, an industrial city, is the last slice of urban turf actively contested by Serbs and ethnic Albanians in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, which has been under international control since NATO air strikes ended last June.

Tens of thousands of Serbs fled Kosovo over the past eight months. The only sizeable, vibrant Serb community remaining with direct links to Belgrade is in Mitrovica.

A de facto partition of the city has left Serbs in control north of the Ibar river. Ethnic Albanians dominate to the south.

Despite being saturated with peacekeepers and U.N. police who conduct frequent weapons searches, guns and explosives have been stockpiled by extremists on both sides.

Minor altercations can grow quickly into major incidents, as happened last Tuesday when more than 40 people, among them 17 French peacekeepers, were injured in an outburst of ethnic violence on the north bank.

The Presevo valley in eastern Serbia, just over the administrative boundary demarcating Kosovo, normally has a resident ethnic Albanian population of 60,000-70,000 people.

About ten per cent of them have fled to Kosovo in the past eight months, including more than 700 in the last week alone. Most cite harrassment and intimidation by Serb security forces as the reason for their exodus.

Ominously, an armed ethnic Albanian militia group recently surfaced in the Presevo area, giving Belgrade excellent cover for further security operations in the area.

"Our nightmare scenario is a wave of Serb ethnic cleansing in the Presevo valley stampeding tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians into Kosovo at the same time Mitrovica explodes," said a Western diplomat who asked not to be named.

"Imagine Washington's embarrassment around anniversary time if there is television footage of American soldiers, helpless to intervene inside Serbia, standing by as hordes of ethnically cleansed ethnic Albanians stream into Kosovo."

U.N. refugee officials fear that any significant movement of ethnic Albanians out of Serbia would trigger ethnic Albanian retaliation against the few remaining pockets of Serbs in Kosovo, including in Mitrovica.

Fresh outbreaks of ethnic violence would further discredit the international effort here.

But what if, amidst civil disturbances in Mitrovica, extremists were to turn their bombs, rockets and automatic weapons on peacekeepers rather than on one another?

Analysts say that "force protection" is such a concern among key contributing nations that any significant loss of life among peacekeepers here could jeopardise the entire international mission, as happened in Somalia.

KFOR peacekeepers have strengthened security measures along Kosovo's border with the Presevo valley to help contain the trouble there. Aid workers are braced to house and feed any refugees who flee the area.

Fresh plans have been drafted to reduce ethnic tensions in Mitrovica and to corral extremists on both sides.

But with March 24th - the anniversary of the first NATO air strike - fast approaching, trouble is in the air in Kosovo and all eyes are on Belgrade.

Original article