Int. Herald Tribune
GIs to battle Kosovars?

US warns of showdown

By Roberto Suro

Paris, Thursday, March 16, 2000

WASHINGTON - A senior Pentagon official has warned that U.S. troops in Kosovo this spring might have to fight their former allies, the ethnic Albanian guerrillas, who are rearming themselves and threatening cross-border attacks against Serbia.

"This has got to cease and desist, and if not, ultimately it is going to lead to

confrontation between the Albanians and KFOR," said the official, referring to the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, which has dwindled to about 37,000 troops.

The stern warning Tuesday came as James Rubin, State Department spokesman turned envoy, ended three days of talks in which he urged ethnic Albanian leaders to halt a rising tide of violence against Serbs but apparently failed to win any concessions.

Mr. Rubin reminded the Kosovars that the United States had come to their rescue after President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia had staged a scorched-earth campaign against them.

Worries that Kosovo might explode this spring were sounded in European capitals as well.

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook of Britain said: "We put the extremists on both sides on notice: We will not allow them to destroy the process of restoring stability and bringing reconciliation."

With increasing frequency in recent weeks, ethnic Albanian fighters have raked Serbian villages and homesteads with gunfire and have assaulted Serbs on the way to work or to marketplaces in an apparent effort to drive the remaining Serbs out of Kosovo.

While the province technically remains part of Serbia and the Serb-dominated Yugoslav federation, the United Nations has promised to help Kosovo build an autonomous judicial and administrative system. That has fueled hopes of independence among many ethnic Albanians, and U.S. officials now worry that those hopes are translating into an escalation of anti-Serb violence.

The senior Pentagon official who warned of possible combat between Americans and ethnic Albanians had recently returned from meetings with U.S. commanders in Kosovo.

He said the Pentagon was particularly concerned about Kosovo Albanian guerrillas marshaling in a no-man's-land in southern Serbia, just outside the U.S.-patrolled sector in Kosovo. The 5,300 U.S. troops in Kosovo have a "pretty slim" ability to police the 185 kilometers (115 miles) of border assigned to them, the official said.

In recent weeks, Kosovar militants near the Serbian town of Presevo have skirmished with Serbian police. In response, the Yugoslav Army has reinforced its presence in the region, and U.S. military leaders are increasingly worried about all-out violence on their doorstep.

More than 500 well-armed ethnic Albanians are active in the rugged hills of the no-man's-land around Presevo, and their numbers are growing rapidly thanks to a well-financed recruiting campaign throughout Kosovo, U.S. military officials said. The guerrillas include elements of the now-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army.

American commanders in Kosovo are now assessing whether more troops will be needed to prevent a resumption of large-scale conflict between the ethnic Albanians and the Serbs, Pentagon officials said.

In the meantime, as many as six unmanned surveillance aircraft are being dispatched to the U.S. peacekeeping contingent to help monitor guerrilla activities in the "ground safety zone," a 5-kilometer-wide buffer strip on the border where neither the U.S. military nor Serbian forces are supposed to operate.

Pessimism over the situation in Kosovo is not universally shared within the Clinton administration. On a visit to Eastern Europe last week, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the chief architect of the U.S.-led intervention on behalf of the Kosovo Albanians, insisted that conditions were improving in Kosovo.

"After all that has happened, we do not expect the rival communities in Kosovo to immediately join hands and start singing folk songs," Mrs. Albright said in Prague.

American officials say they remain hopeful that a majority of Kosovars will balk at the prospect of renewed violence, even if they desire independence.

Original article