Guerrilla War Looms Over S. Serbia

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Mon Mar 13 23:58:47 PST 2000

Copyright 2000 Associated Press AP Online March 12, 2000; Sunday SECTION: International news HEADLINE: Guerrilla War Looms Over S. Serbia BYLINE: MISHA SAVIC DATELINE: PRESEVO, Yugoslavia

The open-air bazaar was teeming with people buying, selling, and bargaining loudly on a sunny market day. But just before dusk, the streets suddenly emptied and an eerie silence descended on the southern Serbian town as residents rushed to be home by dark.

''Nobody feels safe any more, the tension is just terrible,'' said Riza Halimi, the mayor of the predominantly ethnic Albanian town of Presevo, 7 miles east of troubled Kosovo province. ''We are trying to preserve peace, we tell people not to panic, not to flee. There must be a peaceful solution.''

But about 2,000 people have already left, Halimi said, in the wake of a spate of explosions and nighttime shootouts that have killed several people. The formation of a new, Kosovo-inspired ethnic Albanian guerrilla group has only worsened fears of yet another war in Yugoslavia.

Western leaders are also worried.

Last weekend, US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, warned that ethnic Albanians banking on a new NATO intervention ''shouldn't miscalculate.'' She also urged Serbs to show restraint.

Albright's spokesman, James P. Rubin, arrived Sunday in Kosovo, in part to make clear that NATO will not tolerate Kosovo ethnic Albanians smuggling weapons and offering support to their kinsmen across the border in the rest of Serbia.

Serbs say the trouble began late last year when Serbian police came under attack by the guerrillas, who want to end Serbia's authority in Presevo and two other border districts and ''liberate'' their sizable ethnic Albanian communities. They call themselves the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, after the three districts.

Serbian police have responded by sending reinforcements.

Ominous analogies with the early days of the Kosovo conflict abound. Serbs are a minority in the region barely 5 percent of the 40,000 people who live in Presevo. And while they generally welcome the police reinforcement, they fear it could stoke tensions.

''I am afraid this is not going to turn out well,'' said an elderly Serb villager who would only give his first name, Marko. ''If it's going to be like Kosovo, I better sell my house immediately and leave. I'm already looking for a buyer.''

With both communities coexisting until recently, Serbs and ethnic Albanians here agree on one thing the trouble comes from outside.

While Serbs point to the new guerrillas armed and trained in Kosovo, ethnic Albanians blame the police sent by President Slobodan Milosevic's government. Most of the newly deployed police officers are embittered Kosovo veterans with fresh memories of their defeat in the Serbian province last year.

''They want to intimidate us, they patrol in groups and they always ask to see our ID's. If you don't answer them promptly, they slap you,'' said Saib, 17-year-old ethnic Albanian reluctant to give even his first name for fear of reprisals.

The disputed area is sandwiched between Macedonia to the south and the Kosovo border to the northwest. The worst violence has taken place in a three mile buffer zone along the Kosovo border where, according to the Kosovo peace deal between NATO and Yugoslavia, only a limited number of policemen, and no Yugoslav army troops, are allowed.

After NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson warned recently that Milosevic was amassing armed forces near Kosovo, NATO said it would step up efforts to control the border to stop the outward flow of weapons and guerrillas.

NATO's commander in Kosovo, Gen. Klaus Reinhardt, says his peacekeepers have already arrested several people trying to cross into Serbia with arms.

Among the tensest spots is Dobrosin, a remote mountain village on the border where Serbian police killed two ethnic Albanian civilians in late January. Police have since avoided Dobrosin after coming under gunfire several times and the guerillas now appear to be in control.

Halimi says his community would try to keep peace with the authorities because ''problems simply do not get solved by redrawing maps along ethnic lines.'' But he also stressed that local voters, in a 1992 referendum, had asked for autonomy and possible unification with Kosovo.

''We are politically active because we believe in a political solution. Things will get better when democratization takes place in Serbia one day,'' he said.

But many question what will come first: democracy in Serbia or a new war in Yugoslavia.

Ljubisa Tosic, a 32-year-old Serb, says he fears the guerrillas ''will push the ethnic Albanians into a rebellion ... and try to involve NATO on its side,'' just as they did in Kosovo.


Agence France Presse March 10, 2000, Friday SECTION: International news HEADLINE: Albanian guerillas in blatant control of village BYLINE: Claire Snegaroff DATELINE: DOBROSIN, Yugoslavia, March 10

A patrol of armed men in fatigue uniforms moves through the village of Dobrasin, in Serbia, while only 200 meters (yards) away, US KFOR soldiers monitor the internal border between Serbia proper and Kosovo.

Five men in military clothes, with black helmets, guns on their shoulders, walk along a narrow street of the village, deep in a valley.

The badge on their jackets bears the insignia of the UCPMB, the Albanian acronym for the Presevo-Medvedja-Bujanovac Liberation Army, a reference to the three towns in southeastern Serbia, known by Kosovo Albanians as the "eastern Kosovo".

The group first appeared on January 26, at the funeral of two brothers from the village who were killed by Serbian police, according to their relatives.

The Presevo valley is home to an estimated 75,000 ethnic Albanians, although the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said 6,000 of them have fled to Kosovo since the end of NATO's air strikes on Yugoslavia last year.

The villagers advised reporters to wait for "authorisation" to get into Dobrasin.

There, two men in black uniforms, identical to those once worn by the military police of the now dismantled Kosovo Liberation army (KLA) told reporters access to Dobrosin was forbidden.

One is a former KLA fighter from the Nerodime region in southern Kosovo, between Usorevac and Prizren, with a KLA insignia visible on the handle of his pistol.

Just 200 metres (yards) away, US soldiers of the NATO-led peacekeeping force (KFOR) control a small checkpoint on the road leading to the village.

Each vehicle, even tractors, is carefully searched. US Apache helicopters monitor the border with Serbia.

According to the agreement signed last June between NATO and Belgrade, only local Serb police are allowed into the zone set up after NATO's air war on Yugoslavia.

"The UCPMB has no right to be there, but we can do nothing, we have no right to penetrate in this zone," US KFOR spokesman Ian Fitzgerald said.

Nevertheless, a villager said he had seen US soldiers "talking with soldiers" of the UCPMB in Dobrosin itself.

"There are relations between them, they get along well," Qazim Zahiri, 75, said.

Zahiri fled Dobrosin with his family after the death of the two brothers. Nowadays, he lives in the eastern Kosovo town of Gnjilane.

He said numerous people from the village, where some 150 families used to live, have fled.

Tension has risen since the arrival of the UCPMB in the village, he said.

The old man said the rebels' presence in Dobrosin was a good thing, "since the Serbian police can not get into the village as before."

Overnight Friday, Albanian witnesses reported clashes between the Serbian police and the UCPBM fighters in Dobrosin.

And a week ago, a UCPBM fighter and a Serb policeman were killed, while two policemen were injured in clashes in the village.

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