Kosovo rebels regrouping nearby in SerbiaBy STEVEN ERLANGER
March 2, 2000
DOBROSIN, Serbia, March 1 -- Just across the boundary line from Kosovo, guarded more visibly now by American troops in watchtowers, armed Albanians wearing uniforms of a new branch of the Kosovo Liberation Army are training for a battle the West does not want them to have.
Their numbers and leadership are a mystery, but today fewer than 20 men, wearing a mixture of German and American fatigues, did exercises in a muddy field with their weapons, including a heavy machine gun.
On their arms they wear a cloth badge of red, black and yellow that looks exactly like that of the supposedly disbanded and disarmed Kosovo Liberation Army. The only difference is their name: the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, all towns in Serbia itself, although their populations are largely ethnic Albanian.
Their commander here would not give his name, but said he had been wanted by the Serbs since the mid-1980's. The men said they were all former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the guerrilla army of Kosovo Albanians that fought for independence from Serbia, and villagers said they were local people.
They are acting "to defend their country, their village and their land," said Zymer Zajidi, 30, a farmer.
Senior officials of the United Nations and the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, known as KFOR, say the men appear to be members of the Albanian rebel group who refused to turn in their weapons and now want to "liberate" what they call "Eastern Kosovo," where at least 70,000 Albanians live in the arc from Medvedja in the north to Presevo in the south.
By ordering the ambushing of Serbian police officers and sometimes the intimidation of Serbian farmers, the leaders of this new army "are hoping that the Serbs will retaliate with excessive force against civilian populations and create a wave of outrage and pressure on KFOR to respond," said a United Nations official. "It's explosive and dangerous, and we hope KFOR uses restraint."
Gen. Klaus Reinhardt, the German who commands the peacekeepers, said in an interview that he had pushed the Americans hard to seal the boundary between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia. And in fact, less than two weeks ago, the Americans moved checkpoints and built observation towers on the boundary line.
One overlooks this village from a hill, while listening equipment and American tanks line the ridge above Dobrosin. The Americans are now at the edge of a three-mile demilitarized zone in which the Serbian police can operate, but not Serbian troops with heavy weapons, a zone in which Dobrosin sits.
General Reinhardt is adamant in saying his troops will not support any new insurgency in Serbia. Still, the situation is not always so clear on the ground. An American sergeant first class, commanding this checkpoint, said, "We're just here to make sure the locals are O.K." But when asked what he could do if the Serbian police returned and the locals were not O.K., he shrugged and said, "There ain't much we can do, unless they shoot at us."
The soldiers can return fire, he said. Wouldn't that encourage the Albanians to fire on the Americans if the Serbs came, to make it seem as if the Serbs were shooting? He shrugged again.
The Americans now have serious checkpoints and towers along the three main roads into the area from Kosovo, officials said. But despite those, it was a simple matter to drive over primitive country roads of mud, ice and snow in the demilitarized zone in a four-wheel-drive vehicle and avoid any checkpoint, in a region that has for centuries been used by smugglers and drug runners.
The fighters were nervous today, even brusque, and would not give their names or allow photographs of their faces.
On Tuesday they shot up a car belonging to the office of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, which had come from Belgrade and apparently did not stop at one of their checkpoints. An Irish man was wounded in the leg, and the fighters, embarrassed and worried about a possible Serbian response, took the man and his Serbian interpreter to the Americans near the watchtower for medical help.
The fighters say their organization was born on Jan. 26, when two local farmers here, brothers named Isa and Shaip Saqipi, 36 and 32, were killed by the Serbian police as they were returning to the village from cutting wood in the hills.
The villagers say the Serbs of the militarized police were on an operation, with full uniforms, flak jackets and heavy weapons, including a tank. Some seven Serbian policemen were in the village and 40 more in the hills.
That was the last time the Serbian police have shown up here, but this village of about 1,500 now has fewer than 30 families living in it, the rest having fled into Kosovo, staying with friends and relatives in Gnjilane, Malisevo and Podgradje, where the Americans have another checkpoint.
"We live here with one eye open," said Halim Hasani, a teacher in the village. "We're always ready to flee." He said people were afraid now even to go shopping in Bujanovac, because the Serbian police had checkpoints along the road and sometimes turned the villagers back.
Asked if he thought the presence of the fighters might bring the Serbian police back to Dobrosin, he went silent, then said, "Possibly." He stopped, then added hopefully: "But they attack no one. They are only working to defend our land."
But sometimes these fighters do attack, and they are being disingenuous when they say their group was born with the deaths of the Saqipi brothers a month ago. The Serbian police have been complaining of attacks on Serbian villagers around Medvedja since the late summer, and United Nations officials in Pristina say the group has been active in Dobrosin at least since November.
In mid-January three Serbs were killed in nearby Mucibaba, closer to Presevo, and the Serbs moved in at least four units of the Interior Ministry's militarized police to the area.
Ambushes of policemen have intensified, with one killed and three wounded last weekend. One Albanian fighter was also killed in a shootout. And the Serbs say they found a bomb over the weekend in a courthouse in Bujanovac, which they blamed on "armed Albanian terrorists."
Attacks on more moderate or loyal Albanian politicians in Serbia have also increased, including the murder last month of Zemail Mustafi, the Albanian vice president of the Bujanovac branch of President Slobodan Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party.
And more Albanian civilians -- nearly 300, according to the United Nations -- have gone into Kosovo from Serbia proper since Friday.
"KFOR is being played with by these guys," said a senior United Nations official, who is assuming that their leadership is based in Kosovo and tied to parts of the supposedly disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army.
In particular, the official says he believes that the leaders are associated with Rexhep Selimi, who headed the rebel group's ministry for public order and security. But no one seems to know for sure.
Lt. Col. James Shufelt, in an interview at the American military headquarters at Camp Bondsteel, said: "The concern here isn't that the Serbian police will come across, but that Albanian attacks on Serb police and army will inspire a response great enough to cause public clamor for a KFOR response."
His commander, Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, said: "I don't believe we can ever fully seal the border between Serbia and Kosovo. But we have sent a clear message that any cross-border insurgency will not be tolerated or supported."
At the same time, he said, "we've gotten some very good feedback that the people of Dobrosin feel better because of our presence."
But perhaps emboldened, too. The fighters are carrying out exercises within sight of the American watchtowers, and say that once, when the Serbian police were near the village, American helicopters flew overhead and the Serbs withdrew.
Vahid Sylejman, 39, a villager, said he was sure the Americans would come to their rescue if the Serbs came again. "Why else are they there?" he asked, pointing to the tanks on the ridge.
Mr. Zajidi said: "We have a kind of protection from the Americans. If they were not on the hill, no one would be left in this village at all."