Scene set for conflict in area east of Kosovo

BUJANOVAC, Yugoslavia, Mar 15, 2000 -- (Reuters) Few people in this little Serbian town want more violence, but the scene is set.

Burly Serb police man checkpoints and patrol the dusty streets in blue armored personnel carriers, sometimes wearing masks, saying they are there to hunt down "terrorists" among the ethnic Albanian majority.

In a nearby village, a newly emerged group of Albanian guerrillas allege police brutality drove them to take up arms.

The result - shootouts, explosions and killings; some acknowledged, others mysterious - and growing fears that armed clashes will escalate.

Western leaders warn Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic not to start an offensive like the one which tore through Kosovo - a place that just over two years ago, looked much like here.

Milosevic, in turn, berates the West, saying it is promoting Albanian extremism to give itself an excuse to occupy another piece of Yugoslavia and vowing to fight back.

It is an explosive dynamic, and in the cafes and bars of Bujanovac, informally segregated like those in Kosovo, both Serbs and Albanians say they want none of it.

Whereas in Kosovo the warring parties had the broad support of their respective populations, here experience has taught many people that they are the ones with the most to lose.

"People are starting to realize they don't want the army and police to protect them because after a year they end up being thrown out," said one young Serb, who has seen thousands of his compatriots flood from Kosovo to a miserable future as refugees.

An Albanian in another part of town reasoned similarly with regard to the guerrillas, whose actions in Kosovo sparked Serb offensives that burned through village after village, reaching a peak as NATO bombed its way into the province.

"If we supported them we would have to leave," he said. "I don't like the backing of the West. I live in a mixed village and you know how it would be."


Unfortunately for the people of the town, such logic carries little weight over the border in Kosovo, where the ferocity of the conflict means ethnic hatred holds sway. As far as the locals are concerned, all the trouble has come from there.

For the Albanians, it came when Serb police withdrew here from Kosovo last June, bringing brutal behaviour never seen among local Serb officers.

"They've learned how to kill people. They are sick people," said another Albanian, who, like most of the cafe-goers interviewed, refused to give his name, saying these were dangerous times.

For the Serbs, it is ex-guerrillas from Kosovo stirring the cauldron, emboldened by NATO's air strikes last year into trying to provoke the police, hoping the West will intervene again and bring another piece of territory under Albanian control.

The moderates have the upper hand for the time being, but there's no telling how long that will last.

A Serb journalist from the area believes Milosevic, who is due to hold elections this year, may be looking for a crisis to distract people from their economic woes.

But he thinks he is more likely to stir trouble among pro-and anti-independence elements in the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro than tackle a region with NATO on its doorstep.

"Milosevic is counting on the internal card in Montenegro. But if that doesn't work the Kosovo Liberation Army could be the joker in his pack," he said.

The international organizations running Kosovo have warned Albanian politicians there that they might lose support unless they do more to tackle the extremists that are driving Serbs from Kosovo and eyeing land further east.

They deny any links with the rebels over the border.

Milosevic has been talking peace, but someone sent police reinforcements to the area two months ago which only made things worse.

As well as their characteristic blue APCs, many travel in military-style jeeps apparently causing some in the West to think army reinforcements had been sent in.

The army says it has been in the area for months. It is calling local Serbs up for exercises, but insist they are routine.

Only two things are for sure, the cycle of violence has begun to turn and whichever side makes the next move, the other will respond.

Original article