Violence echoes in valley along Yugoslav buffer zones

Armed groups threaten NATO-enforced peace

March 18, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LJFEAT, Yugoslavia - Tomar Misini is an ethnic Albanian rebel bound to a cause.

Dressed in black and carrying an AK-47 rifle, Misini patrols a makeshift checkpoint in the middle of a 3-mile-wide no man's land. In the valley below him, Yugoslav troops and police remain tucked inside Serbia.

Above him, U.S. soldiers patrol a ridge in Kosovo.

And around him, there is an eerie sound of silence, as a cease-fire holds between the rebel band that claims to be fighting for local rights and Serbian soldiers trying to hang on to the southern flank of their ever-dwindling country.

"I don't believe it will stay peaceful," Misini says. "We don't believe in the Serbian army."

Two years after NATO launched its 78-day air war to drive Serbian troops out of Kosovo and pave the way for the return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians, the region is poised on a knife edge, and 5,400 U.S. troops in eastern Kosovo remain on watch over some of the more volatile areas to bedevil the Balkans.

In the past several weeks, Albanian guerrillas have been attacking posts in neighboring Macedonia and southern Yugoslavia. Macedonian forces have brought heavier weaponry into the battle against the entrenched Albanian rebels - men like Misini, 28, who has taken up arms for this latest Balkan brush fire.

"On any given day, Kosovo can go from a calm, tranquil place to a very exciting place," says Brig. Gen. Kenneth Quinlan, U.S. troop commander.

Things could grow a lot more exciting in the next few weeks as Western-led peacekeepers attempt to deal with the shadowy insurgent bands of ethnic Albanian fighters who have grown stronger and bolder after a winter spent recruiting and building in craggy mountains. These are the people NATO was trying to protect from the Serbs; now they are the problem.

They've taken root in the Presevo Valley, a gorgeous swath of southern Serbian land that abuts Kosovo. And now, they've struck in the mountains above Tetovo, the second-largest city of Macedonia, a complex country dominated by Slavs with a sizable ethnic Albanian minority.

No one is quite sure of the real numbers and aims of the rebel groups composed of ex-Kosovo Liberation Army fighters and disgruntled locals. Even the groups' names give little away.

The Liberation Army of Presevo, Medveja and Bujanovac (UCPMB) operates in an area between southern Serbia and Kosovo. The National Liberation Army battles in Macedonia.

Some say there could be a few hundred fighters in the steep hills; others, a few thousand.

Some claim the groups are bidding to improve civil rights for their ethnic brethren inside Serbia and Macedonia. Others say they're trying to cherry-pick parts of Serbia and Macedonia to create a larger, independent Kosovo, which may still be part of Serbia but which, as a practical matter, is a United Nations protectorate.

And no one is certain if the groups are working together.

But Quinlan, the U.S. commander, has his suspicions after the latest series of events.

"I think the possibility of links is a realistic assumption we're working to establish," he says.

In the past few months, the U.S. troops have tried to prevent the rebels from moving men and arms from Kosovo into southern Serbia and Macedonia. They've detained 200 suspected rebels since November, with 65 in custody.

The detention is so well established that families can visit the prisoners, and one was even released briefly to attend his father's funeral after his family proved the death by taking the body to the front gates of the U.S. base at Camp Bondsteel in Southeastern Kosovo.

One thing is certain: The groups have no international backing, and local support is also spotty.

The Presevo Valley, a land of old farms surrounded by low mountains, is among the more important flash points. It's home to thousands of Albanians who complain of being oppressed by Serbia and apparently wouldn't mind the land's being linked to Kosovo.

Near the area where Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia collide, Yugoslav military units began tentatively moving last week into a portion of a 3-mile-wide area called the ground safety zone, established at the end of the 1999 air war to keep the beaten Yugoslav army inside Serbia safely away from a Western-led peacekeeping force.

Now, the Western-led Kosovo peacekeeping force, KFOR, is allowing the Yugoslavs to secure the area with light arms and no tanks in what is termed a "phased, conditional relaxation" of the zone. The movement is made easier because Slobodan Milosevic is no longer in charge in Serbia.

Still, nobody thinks it will be an easy mix, since a military feared by ethnic Albanian civilians began moving closer to rebels whom it attempted to root out two years ago. "There are going to be incidences of violence for the next year in the best of circumstances," a Western diplomat says. "It's a question if they can be handled in a way that does not grow and spread."

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