NY Times
Serbs at border complain of attacks from Kosovo

By CARLOTTA GALL

January 15, 2000


KURSUMLIJA, Serbia -- The Serbian chief of police here looks weary. For him the war in Kosovo is not only not over, but has come closer. He says Albanians from Kosovo are crossing the border into his district in the adjacent part of Serbia and attacking villagers and the police.

Unlocking the door of his small Yugo car outside the police station, 10 miles from the Kosovo border, he spoke of a land mine explosion that killed three policemen in November. He said the mine had been laid by Kosovo Albanians, almost certainly former members of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army.

"The K.L.A. is here already," he said with a small shrug, as if it were no surprise.

If true, that assertion represents a serious problem for the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo. The force moved in and took control of Kosovo, the southern province of Serbia, in June after an 11-week NATO campaign of air strikes to end Serbian repression of Albanians and to force Serbian troops to withdraw.

Already struggling to contain the postwar violence against Serbs and other minorities inside Kosovo, the peacekeepers may face a growing burden of policing a long and porous border to prevent Kosovo Albanians from carrying out attacks in nearby parts of Serbia.

The Serbian police say there have been at least 16 attacks on Serbian police officers and villagers in the area near Kosovo since June.

They began with occasional shootings and harassment of villagers by Albanians straying over the border to steal wood or to settle scores. But recently there have been more serious and organized attacks that the Serbian police say indicate guerrilla activity.

The worst attack occurred on Nov. 21, when gunmen opened fire on a police post near the Serbian village of Prepolac, just a few hundred yards from a unit of peacekeeping troops on the Kosovo side of the border.

Shooting continued through the early hours of the morning, and then a loud explosion resounded through the remote wooded hills. Serbian police officers traveling back down the mud road from the border to their headquarters had hit a land mine. Three men were killed in the blast and six were wounded.

The Serbian police chief, Rodoljub Dosovic, said he had no doubt that well-trained Albanian guerrillas had placed the mine, in a coordinated action with the shooting attack on the police post. "They started a firefight to draw out the police, and another group laid the mine on the road," he said.

Another attack occurred several weeks later on a road near the town of Bujanovac, east of Kosovo, when a police car came under fire. Two senior officers were wounded in the attack, which the police again blamed on Albanians from Kosovo.

"It was a classic attack, an ambush from both sides of the road," said Milivoje Mihajlovic, a Serbian journalist who used to be based in Kosovo. "It reminded me of the K.L.A. attacks on the police in Kosovo in 1998."

When the Serbian military pulled out of Kosovo in June, it moved all troops and heavy weaponry behind a three-mile buffer zone. The Serbian police are posted on every road in the area and patrol the back roads and villages. Many of them are from Kosovo and served there for years.

They take the attacks in stride. It has been part of the job for several years, one said.

The villagers in this area appear more alarmed. Some are moving out of the villages closest to the border, and all are calling for a stronger police presence.

In the town hall in Kursumlija, Mayor Borivoje Urosevic pulled out a detailed map of his district, which has a 60-mile boundary with Kosovo. There is no Albanian population in this area, he said, but five Serbian villages have been abandoned as residents have come under repeated attack from Albanians from Kosovo. "There is no day without an attack," he said.

Six people have been killed since June, including the three policemen near Prepolac, and seven people wounded, he said.

The level of violence remains low compared with that of neighboring Kosovo, but the growing use of explosives shows a more organized intent, Mayor Urosevic said. On Dec. 12 two young men narrowly missed injury when their tractor drove over a mine outside the border village of Merdare.

"This is the K.L.A.," the mayor said. "This is organized. Robbery is not the motive as it was earlier. It is pressure to make the Serbs move from their territory." The peacekeepers, he added, "must prevent these attacks, because we have people being displaced from the area."

Ljubica Aleksic was the last to leave the now abandoned village of Tacevac.

The police used to patrol daily, he said, but after the land mine incident they were reluctant to drive up the roads. The Albanians are bolder than before, he said, because they know that the Serbian police cannot pursue them over the border into Kosovo.

"They want to take advantage of the woods to clear the area of the border, so there are no more Serbs there anymore," Mr. Aleksic said.

On the other side of the border, in Kosovo, Albanian villagers have returned to rebuild their houses under the protection of peacekeepers but remain nervous with the Serbian police so close. When shooting broke out near the Kosovo village of Donje Dubnica recently, several families fled their homes for the day.

They said they did not dare venture to cut wood on the Serbian side. When prompted, they acknowledged that young men who had fought in the war were slipping across the border to attack the Serbian police.

Gen. Klaus Reinhardt, the German commander of the peacekeeping force, played down the issue in an interview, as did the British officer in charge of operations in the border area. Both appeared confident that their border controls and covert operations were sufficient.

"I cannot prevent everyone who wants to go across, except by mining to a maximum," General Reinhardt said. "And we are busy trying to demine the place."




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