By DANICA KIRKAKosovo leader promises to seek end to Albanian-Serb violence
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (March 20, 2000) - Hashim Thaci, the leader of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, promised Monday to try to stop Serb-Albanian violence in southern Serbia, saying the unrest harms Kosovo's chances for independence.
International officials fear that the unrest in the Presevo Valley region, just over the boundary from Kosovo, will touch off a war within earshot of thousands of NATO peacekeepers.
"We should do everything we can to overcome this difficult situation," Thaci said in an interview in Pristina, the Kosovo capital. "I am personally determined to be engaged in a maximum way to overcome the difficult situation in Presevo."
It is unclear whether Thaci has any direct connection to ethnic Albanian militants fighting Serb police harassment in Presevo. However, as political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army during the war, Thaci wields moral influence over the fighters.
The potential for a new Balkan flashpoint has alarmed international officials. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright dispatched her spokesman, James P. Rubin, to Kosovo last week to demand that ethnic Albanian leaders cut off ties to the rebels - or risk U.S. support for the province itself.
Within days, the U.S. Army launched a raid on a collection of predominantly ethnic Albanian villages near the border, seizing uniforms, guns, hand grenades and other weapons they said were supporting the insurgency.
Thaci blamed Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for the unrest.
"It is important to prevent the events that were and are taking place," he said. "But I stress again, that I personally will do everything I can to stop the armed confrontations there."
Thaci also said Kosovars deserve - and need - a greater say in running their own affairs, adding that the United Nations and NATO peacekeepers have failed to carry out well-intentioned plans to govern the province.
He also attacked a plan by U.N. administrators to make a suburb of the tense ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica into a separate municipality. Such gerrymandering for the predominantly Serb suburb of Zvecan, would be "the first step in building the Serb enclaves in Kosovo, which will follow with others."
Thaci and other leaders have fought against any tinkering with Kosovo's local district boundaries. U.N. officials have characterized the decision as a move intended to ease administration of the area.
The issue of potential Serb enclaves is particularly sensitive in northern Kosovo, where residents maintain strong ties to Serbia despite the arrival of NATO peacekeepers after a 78-day bombing campaign. Moves to tamper with the ethnic balance of Kosovska Mitrovica, the area's largest city, have touched off riots.
Still, NATO peacekeepers pledged Monday to press ahead with plans to create a so-called confidence zone on both sides of the Ibar River, the dividing line that separates the predominantly Serb north from the ethnic Albanian south of the city some 25 miles from Pristina.
NATO spokesman Philip Anido brushed aside the suggestion that NATO had caved in to Serb demands, allowing Serbs who monitor traffic on the bridge to return close by - even after a military operation was launched to remove them.
"We haven't backed off anything," Anido said.