Daily shootings spark fear in village near Kosovo
KONCULJ, Jul 20, 2000 -- (Reuters) Ethnic Albanian villagers in southern Serbia near Kosovo say they live in fear, with sporadic gunshots and mortar fire echoing daily from the wooded hills around them.
"We had a war here for two-and-a-half hours last night," a villager named Halim told Reuters on Tuesday.
As he spoke, what appeared to be two shots rang out in the distance. Villagers said they had heard shooting every day and night over the past week and were braced for more.
They said they did not know who was behind it, but said two mortar bombs had crashed into the village overnight and pointed to a bullet hole in a window as evidence their situation was unsafe.
A few hundred meters (yards) outside the village on the road to Kosovo, tense Serbian police manning a checkpoint also seemed prepared for the worst, ready to use their automatic rifles and refusing to speak to this reporter.
In the latest incident, a Serbian official said on Wednesday there had been two attacks in the past two days with several mortar bombs fired at police.
Three policemen were injured on Monday, a local investigator said, and on Tuesday another policeman was slightly hurt. Villagers said two mortar bombs had detonated in a courtyard on Tuesday evening, slightly injuring two young girls.
Slavoljub Mihajlovic, an investigating judge in the nearby town of Vranje, said he believed "Albanian terrorists" were behind the attacks, adding that the mortar fire came from the direction of the nearby village of Dobrosin.
UPSURGE IN VIOLENCE
Both villages are situated in a 5-km (three mile) demilitarized buffer zone between territory controlled by Yugoslav forces and Kosovo province, where tens of thousands of NATO-led troops are based. Only Serb police patrol the zone.
The area of southern Serbia adjoining Kosovo, now under de facto international rule, has a large ethnic Albanian population and has experienced increased ethnic violence since last year's withdrawal of Serbian forces from the province.
An ethnic Albanian armed group calling itself the Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac Liberation Army, named after three municipalities in the area, is believed to have been involved in several clashes with Serbian police over the past year.
Pledged to defend the ethnic Albanian population, the shadowy organization is believed to be based near Dobrosin, a few kms (miles) south of Konculj.
A local Albanian leader in eastern Serbia, stressing he had no contact with the armed group, estimated it had around 200 members. He said some were believed to be former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought Serb rule in Kosovo.
Almost 50 incidents have been registered along the boundary with Kosovo over the past year, in which around 15 people were killed and more than 20 wounded.
Most of the victims were ethnic Albanians. Mihajlovic told Reuters on Wednesday that one man, from Kosovo, had been killed wearing a black uniform and with the insignia of the armed group after an an attack on a police vehicle on February 27. A policeman was killed and another badly wounded in the attack.
He alleged the group had carried out attacks on ethnic Albanians loyal to the Serbian authorities.
People in Konculj, situated along a main road between Bujanovac in Serbia proper and the western Kosovo town of Gnjilanem, say they hardly dare venture outside the village to take care of their cattle or cut wood.
"We live like prisoners," said Sherifi Ruzdhi, an 69-year-old shopowner and village elder.
He said some 1,500 people used to live in Konculj, all ethnic Albanians, but that about 60 percent had left, many for Kosovo less than a km (mile) away, and more fled on Wednesday.
"It was better for us during the war than now," he said, referring to NATO's March-to-June air strikes last year to drive out Serbian forces from Kosovo.
He and others said they had heard about the Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac Liberation Army, but did not support it, nor had any contact with its members. "We know nothing about them," he said. "The village does not support them.