Ethnic Albanian fighters still armed to defend village in Serbia

DOBROSIN, Yugoslavia, Mar 31, 2000 -- (AFP) Ethnic Albanian guerrillas still control this village in the demilitarized zone between Kosovo and Serbia a week after signing up to a political council touted by US sponsors as a "first step" away from violence.

US State Department spokesman James Foley said Tuesday that Washington was "disappointed" that rebels on the Serb side of the five kilometer (three mile) wide Ground Security Zone (GSZ) had done nothing to demobilize since talks last week.

But a representative of ethnic Albanians driven from the Presevo Valley in southeastern Serbia, where up to 70,000 ethnic Albanians live, told AFP it was unfair to ask men defending their homes to disarm while no guarantees of their security had been given.

"It is almost impossible for people to put down their weapons if you cannot guarantee their safety," said Tahir Dalipi, who took part in the talks with the US representative in Kosovo, Christopher Dell, and former Kosovo rebel chief Hashim Thaci.

He said the Liberation Army for Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB), which sprang up in Dobrosin in January, was "not a military structure but the local population trying to defend itself against Serb police."

The group has raised fears among KFOR international peacekeepers in Kosovo that fresh violence on the border -- but beyond their UN mandate -- could drag them into renewed conflict with Yugoslav forces.

After a brief burst of publicity in February, the UCPMB all but shut down Dobrosin to the outside world after a firefight with Serb police last month.

But it joined the new political council to tackle regional tensions after last Thursday's talks in the southeastern Kosovo town of Gnjilane.

The council condemned the use of violence but did not go as far as pledging to dissolve the organization, US officials said after the meeting.

Dalipi, a former ethnic Albanian deputy in the Serbian parliament, said Serb forces had already "ethnically cleansed" villages in the area and reduced the Albanian population of Medvedja from around 4,000 to just a few hundred through intimidation.

He now runs the Council for Banished Persons from Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja in Gnjilane, and is calling for an international body to monitor the human rights situation in the region.

"The population in places is almost entirely Albanian but the police is almost entirely Serb. The people have no confidence in the police," he said.

Dalipi said the UCPMB formed after local men who had fought for Thaci's Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) were unable to return to their homes in other parts of Serbia for fear of being arrested by Serb police.

In January one ex-guerrilla was surrounded by police in his parents' house in Dobrosin. Other men came to his aid and the police withdrew, whereupon the locals formed the group, which Dalipi said did not extend beyond the village.

They made their first public appearance wearing UCPMB badges at the funeral that month of two ethnic Albanian brothers allegedly murdered by Serb police while cutting wood on the edge of Dobrosin.

"But it's not a real military organization," said Dalipi, who admitted that its very informality would make it difficult to officially disband.

Life in the village seemed normal Thursday, with children playing in the dirt streets and farmers going about their business.

Just a few hundred meters away, US battle tanks behind earth berms guard the internal boundary and US troops search people and cars crossing the border.

KFOR spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Henning Philipp said anyone could cross the boundary if they were not carrying arms or wearing uniforms.

He said KFOR had not joined the talks to form a political council as Dobrosin is not within Kosovo.

"But we welcome diplomatic efforts to calm tensions on the other side of the boundary in Serbia," he said.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR has said around 6,000 refugees from the area have registered in Kosovo, while Dalipi said some 9,000 had fled.

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