Kosovo Albanians close to agreement with US forcesInsurgents may halt attacks into Serbia
Peter Finn, Roberto Suro
Tuesday, March 21, 2000
Pristina - Under pressure from U.S. diplomats and peacekeeping troops, ethnic Albanian militias are close to an agreement to suspend attacks against Belgrade security forces in Serbia, just beyond the U.S.-patrolled sector of Kosovo, according to U.S., NATO and Kosovo Albanian sources.
In exchange, the officials said, U.S. peacekeepers will agree to refrain from cracking down on militia members as forcefully as they did last Wednesday when more than 300 U.S. troops descended on five militia staging areas and arms caches, arresting nine alleged insurgents.
The NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo already has authority to disarm and disband any nascent quasi-military groups. The agreement under discussion would for the first time extend the peacekeepers' influence to ethnic Albanians who are operating beyond Kosovo's borders, hitting targets in other parts of Serbia and threatening the peace there. Kosovo is a province of Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia.
U.S. officials said they hope the agreement will produce additional goodwill gestures, such as the surrender of some arms by ethnic Albanians. Also, the insurgents would be required not to appear in uniform, end recruitment and training activities and halt the movement of arms between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia, sources said.
Last week's raids came after armed bands of ethnic Albanians stepped up attacks against Serbian police forces around the town of Presevo, just across the boundary between the U.S.-patrolled sector of Kosovo and the rest of Serbia. The insurgents are seeking to extend Kosovo's boundaries to include the Presevo Valley, which is in Serbia proper but is populated primarily by ethnic Albanians.
U.S. and NATO officials fear that the ethnic Albanian forays would give Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic an excuse to take military action in the Presevo area, which could draw U.S. forces into a new conflict.
U.S. and ethnic Albanian sources said they hope to have an agreement in place by Friday, the first anniversary of the start of NATO's 78-day air campaign against Yugoslavia that came in response to Yugoslavia's repression of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority. The campaign ended when Milosevic agreed to withdraw his security forces and to allow a NATO-led peacekeeping force to take administrative control of Kosovo.
To mark the anniversary, NATO Secretary General George Robertson and U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who led the NATO campaign last year, are to visit Kosovo. Plans for $1.2 billion in reconstruction aid for Kosovo are to be discussed at a conference of donor nations in Brussels.
"Clearly, it would be very beneficial to mark the anniversary with an announcement that dispels the fear Kosovo is in for a hot spring and that the Presevo Valley is about to blow up," said a senior NATO official.
To secure an accord, the United States is simultaneously holding talks with Hashim Thaqi, the former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the disbanded ethnic Albanian paramilitary force; Ramush Hajradinaj, a former KLA commander; and leading ethnic Albanian figures from the Presevo Valley, U.S. and NATO sources said.
Thaqi and Hajradinaj reportedly are telling the insurgents and their sponsors in Kosovo that they need to suspend operations for tactical reasons so they are not perceived as aggressors. The potential agreement recognizes that the insurgents will likely resurface if Milosevic launches a major offensive in the valley.
"Milosevic has to be seen as the aggressor," said one ethnic Albanian source familiar with the discussions. He said the insurgents may try to keep their arms for "local defense" purposes but would have to retire the idea of forming a military force to "liberate" the Presevo Valley.
U.S. and NATO officials said peacekeeping troops would retain the right to seize arms in Kosovo, but that they would not pursue that goal with actions as aggressive as the raids last week if the ethnic Albanians suspend their activities. Moreover, if militia members turned in weapons voluntarily they would not face arrest, the officials said, but added that routine patrols and reconnaissance will intensify.
Just before last week's raids, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin met with ethnic Albanian leaders to warn them that continued activity in Presevo endangered international support for peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts in Kosovo. In parallel talks, U.S. officials began negotiations with local ethnic Albanian leaders on both sides of the border to seek an agreement to defuse the situation.
A senior figure in the former Kosovo Liberation Army familiar with the talks warned, however, that "this is the Balkans," and no agreement is final until it is sealed, and even then some of the highly factionalized ethnic Albanian forces may choose to ignore it.
In recent weeks, the village of Dobrosin, which lies in a valley below a U.S. military observation point on the Kosovo-Serbia border, has been used as a kind of boot camp by a militia group calling itself the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, which is known locally by its Albanian initials, UCPMB.
According to Capt. Eric McFadden, commander of the observation post, new recruits rotate in and out of the village. U.S. forces have observed them undergoing what appears to be basic training, including land navigation techniques, drill and ceremony, and physical fitness. There have been a number of clashes between Serbian and UCPMB forces, leading to a handful of deaths. Ethnic Albanians also said Serbian forces have killed 10 civilians, mostly businessmen, since January.
At the entrance to Dobrosin, which lies in a buffer zone between NATO and Yugoslav forces, two uniformed ethnic Albanians, carrying automatic weapons, guard a dirt lane that leads to a house that acts as the group's headquarters. U.S forces have seen armed guerrillas in uniform and an hour later saw the same people in civilian clothes cross the border back into Kosovo. McFadden said they question insurgents for 15 or 20 minutes, but are otherwise powerless to hold them even though they have visual evidence of their involvement with the UCPMB.
One morning this week about a dozen armed and uniformed men could be seen in the village. Some wore mismatched uniforms while other, more senior guerrillas wore all black uniforms, carrying automatic weapons, sidearms and hand grenades. U.S. forces said they have seen no heavy weapons in the area.