Ethnic Albanians flee as police and rebels clash in SerbiaBy ELENA BECATOROS
GNJILANE, Yugoslavia (March 2, 2000) - Clashes between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and police in Serbia proper are sparking a wave of Albanian refugees.
The newly formed rebel group calls itself the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, after three predominantly ethnic Albanian towns just outside Kosovo in southern Serbia. Known by its Albanian acronym UCPMB, its fighters say they are trying to protect villagers in the region from brutal attacks by Serb forces.
One rebel fighter who identified himself only by his code name, Trim, said the group wasn't out to start a war but to prevent violence in the area by Serb forces.
Armed fighters in camouflage uniforms with red patches sporting the Albanian symbol of a black double-headed eagle and the UCPMB acronym were visible Wednesday in the village of Dobrasin, located east of Kosovo a few hundred yards from the border. Both the uniforms and the patches closely resemble those of the now disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought for independence for the province.
The Serbs accuse the fighters of infiltrating from Kosovo, now under NATO control. The alliance, worried about the potential for escalation, has increased manpower on the Kosovo side of the border.
"We are watching the boundary," said Lt. Cmdr. Philip Anido, a spokesman for Kosovo's NATO-led peacekeepers. "We will stop anyone crossing the boundary illegally."
Tension in the area escalated sharply after two ethnic Albanian brothers were shot and killed Jan. 26 by Serb forces as they returned from cutting wood on the edge of Dobrasin. More recently, a Serb police major and a fighter were killed over the weekend, and three other police officers wounded, and a U.N. worker was wounded Tuesday.
Fleeing the fighting, nearly 1,300 people over the past two months have streamed into the closest Kosovo town, Gnjilane, about 30 miles southeast of the provincial capital, Pristina, said Bekim Dauti, with the International Rescue Committee, one of the largest refugee aid agencies based in the United States.
The true number of displaced people could be double that, since many take refuge with relatives and do not register with aid agencies, he added.
More than 100 displaced people have registered in the past three days, Dauti said, adding that most said they fled their homes because they were "tortured or maltreated" by Serb forces, or were accused of having relatives in the KLA.
On Tuesday, rebel fighters shot and wounded an Irish U.N. aid worker, Marcel Grogan, after apparently mistaking his car for a vehicle of Serb forces.
When they realized he was a U.N. worker, "they seemed to be quite embarrassed," Grogan said, recovering from a gunshot wound to the leg. "In fact, one of them said to me that he was sorry that I was wounded."
Dobrasin, the village closest to Kosovo, is almost empty, locals say. Dozens of families have fled across the border, and those who remain stay well away from the eastern edge of the village, where they say Serb forces are stationed.
"There was a lot of shooting, and we left," said Remizije Saqipi, who has taken refuge with her husband and eight children in the nearby Kosovo village of Malisevo. "We left everything there, we took nothing."
But some villagers say they are determined to remain in Dobrasin.
"I am going to stay here. We will defend our country as best we can. Where could we go? Become refugees? We did nothing bad to the Serbs," said Zelami Shefkiu.
He said the situation could deteriorate further. "Maybe it is going to be a war like in Kosovo. But I don't care, I'm not scared. Because this is my village, this is my house and no one has the right to tell me to leave here."