UN on alert as ethnic Albanian extremists threaten Serbia

By William Ickes

March 17, 2000

(AFP) - Fearing a new outbreak of violence in southern Serbia, UN and NATO leaders acted to suppress a new ethnic Albanian guerrilla movement based in Kosovo.

Western leaders suspect ethnic Albanian militants based in southeast Kosovo of planning incursions outside the province to whip up resistance to Belgrade within the 75,000-strong ethnic Albanian community across the border in Serbia.

But western diplomats have warned the rebels not to expect NATO troops to intervene to help the Albanian minority in case of action by federal Yugoslav troops provoked by guerrilla attacks.

US troops from the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force, who are based along the border between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia, swooped Wednesday to disarm guerrillas at five bases near the frontier.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan accused Kosovo Albanians on Thursday of stirring up trouble in southern Serbia.

"There is no doubt there has been provocation and attempts to provoke (unrest) in southern Serbia and the Presevo valley," Annan told journalists during a two-day visit to Paris.

"This comes clearly from the Albanian side: either from elements of former UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army) or a new group," he said.

Annan's statement came after US State Department spokesman James Rubin publically warned ethnic Albanian leaders that KFOR would not allow them to stir up new trouble or draw peacekeepers into their war.

The diplomatic pressure on the ethnic Albanians was backed up by the raids Wednesday on guerrilla bases set up in in Kosovo near the border with the southern Serbian region around the Presevo valley which has a large Albanian population.

About 300 US soldiers force raided five sites along a 28-kilometre (18 mile) front in "synchronized, simultaneous assaults," by airborne and ground forces, said US First Sergeant Ian Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald said no shots were fired during the operation and no injuries were reported, while nine people were detained by US troops.

Peacekeepers seized 22 crates of ammunition, seven rifles, 28 hand grenades, two mortars tubes, mines, uniforms and documents, according to KFOR statement.

"One of the locations appeared to be a strategically placed training or staging base for fringe or extremist elements operating in Kosovo, Macedonia, or the Presevo Valley," the statement added.

The operation was meant to "show everyone that we do stand by our word," Fitzgerald told AFP, adding: "We will do whatever is necessary to ensure peace is maintained within Kosovo."

"We are committed to providing the Kosovo Albanians with a safe and secure environment, but we are not providing them with strategic cover," an unnamed senior NATO official was quoted by the Washington Post as saying.

Some of the seized uniforms bore the insignia of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac, known by its Albanian acronym of UCPMB.

The Albanian government in Tirana condemned the guerrilla group.

Albanian Foreign Minister Paskal Milo said: "The Albanian government denounces all the actions of these extremist circles in Presevo, who instead of considering Albanian interests are more interested in their own."

And Prime Minister Ivan Kostov of Bulgaria called on Kosovar Albanian leaders in Pristina to "avoid new confrontations."

But in a sign that tension is likley to increase before it subsides, President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia on Wednesday accused peacekeepers of aiding the guerrillas.

"Instead of using their authority and impartiality to restrain terrorist gangs of Albanian extremists, we face the situation in which the terrorism is taking place under their auspices, and even being financed by UN means," he said.

Original article