Armed Albanian group an enigma in South Serbia
DOBROSIN, Aug 7, 2000 -- (Reuters) Local Albanians in this southern Serbian village near the boundary with Kosovo see the armed guerrillas among them as their defenders against Serb police.
Serbian authorities brand them "Albanian terrorists" and say they have attacked police checkpoints repeatedly this year.
NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo (KFOR), keeping a wary watch from just over the boundary, say the guerrillas are a threat to security and have tried to cut their supply lines.
The rebels themselves refuse to give their side of the story in Dobrosin, a remote village which nestles inconspicuously in wooded hills near the Presevo Valley.
An Albanian flag is flying and the Serb police are nowhere to be seen, but Dobrosin, unlike Kosovo, is still officially under Serbian government control.
The sight of two armed men in fatigues on a street corner comes as a reminder of the tension.
The pair are clearly members of the Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac Liberation Army (UCPMB in Albanian), a mysterious group which has raised fears of a new Kosovo-style conflict in the mainly Albanian populated area to the east of the province.
"It is an insurgent group inside Serbia," said U.S. Captain Tom Hairgrove, commander of KFOR's Outpost Sapper on the Kosovo boundary line overlooking Dobrosin. "My mission up here on this hill is to prevent violence from spreading into Kosovo."
U.S. TANKS OVERLOOK DOBROSIN
To drive home that message, U.S. tanks and armored personnel carriers are stationed with their guns pointing towards Serbia. Two Apache helicopters hover overhead.
U.S. soldiers search men, women and children passing the checkpoint on their way to and from Dobrosin, where the guerrillas are believed to have their base.
"We are trying to restrict their (UCPMB's) movements more or less now, to prevent or slow down the violence," Hairgrove said, looking down towards the village and the fields around it.
The area of southern Serbia adjoining Kosovo has seen an upsurge in violence since the withdrawal last summer of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, some of them to this area.
The UCPMB is named after three towns in government-controlled Serbia's Presevo Valley and deliberately echoes the Kosovo Liberation Army, (KLA) known to Albanians as the UCK, which fought Serb security forces for a year before NATO intervened on its side.
Western officials say that if the UCPMB, which has been involved in several sporadic clashes with police, thinks it can draw NATO into a conflict in government-controlled Serbia, it should think again.
Hairgrove estimated that the group had around 60 members in Dobrosin and said it had increased its activities recently. He underlined that he could not see what the Serb police were doing in response to UCPMB activity.
"From my position I've seen an increased amount of patrolling, I've seen the use of mortars, outgoing, by the UCPMB, just a general overall increase in military operations in the area, all on that side of the provincial boundary," he said.
Only Serb police are allowed to patrol the area where Dobrosin lies, in a five-km (three-mile) buffer zone between territory controlled by the Yugoslav army and Kosovo, where tens of thousands of NATO-led troops are based.
Around 50 incidents have been registered along the boundary in Serbia over the past year, according to figures published by independent Serb media. Around 15 people, mostly Albanians, were killed. More than 20 were wounded, including many police.
REBELS SEEN AT FUNERAL
Locals say members of the "liberation army", which has pledged to defend the ethnic Albanian population in the region, were first seen in January at the funeral of two woodcutter brothers killed by Serbian police near Dobrosin.
"If the UCPMB was not here, we would have to flee," said one man in Dobrosin. He and other villagers denied Serbian allegations that the group was attacking police checkpoints, saying they were only trying to defend the village.
"We have no reason to be afraid," said one 10-year-old girl, adding that the UCPMB was defending them.
Down in the Presevo Valley a few km (miles) east, Serb police operate several checkpoints dotted on roads to Kosovo, one of them leading up to Dobrosin in the hills above.
Locals say it is unsafe to travel on that road from the Presevo Valley to Dobrosin, which is now safely accessible only from Kosovo.
Most local Albanians in the area - with the exception of people in UCPMB-controlled Dobrosin - insist they know nothing about the rebels and say they do not support them.
"I've never had any contact with them," said Asim Azemi, a teacher in Konculj village, scene of many recent incidents.
A Western diplomat said the situation in the Presevo Valley was less antagonistic than the environment in Kosovo before the 1998-9 conflict, even though Albanians complain about discrimination, harassment and police beatings.
But, he added, "it only takes a small group of 'freedom fighters' to cause a conflict...things escalate easily here."
One Albanian leader in the area estimated that the UCPMB had around 200 fighters, suggesting it had increased in strength since January as a result of what he described as police maltreatment of the local population.
He said some of the guerrillas were believed to be former KLA fighters, both from the Presevo Valley and from Kosovo. But he stressed that he had no links with them.
Stojance Arsic, the Serb mayor of Bujanovac - a municipality which also covers Dobrosin - dismissed the rebels as former criminals.
"They are not a big threat," he said in his office in the town hall building, which was damaged in June by one of several bombs planted in the area by unknown attackers.
He accused the West of backing the "terrorists", saying KFOR failed to prevent them from crossing the boundary.
Slavoljub Mihajlovic, a Serb investigating judge, said the armed group was also attacking Albanians. "These terrorists also attack and bother their own people loyal to Serbia."
Local Albanians accuse the authorities of routinely blaming "Albanian terrorists" without producing evidence, suggesting it may be in Belgrade's interest to keep tension high.
People in Konculj expressed their fear of being caught in the middle, some saying police suspect innocent civilians of being linked to the rebels. Many villagers have fled to Kosovo.
"I cannot even say who is shooting," said Azemi, the school teacher, referring to sporadic gunshots and mortar fire echoing almost daily from the hills around him. "We villagers do not want this to happen, but who asks us?"