The Gun-Running Trail Into Kosovo Powder Keg

In Albania, arms flow north to Kosovo brethren - for profit

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Ali Mata wears his black hair tousled, his beard bushy. On the streets of Kukes, it projects him as a guy not to be messed with.

He talks the talk of an Albanian nationalist. Today, Mr. Mata is railing against the Serb "wild animals" next door in Yugoslavia, and of their atrocities against Albanians through the centuries.

Mata thirsts for revenge after the recent massacre of some 80 ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, the southern Serbian province on the other side of the mountain.

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"It's been a dream of mine since I was young," he says, "to fight against the Serbs because of all the crimes against my [ancestors'] village in 1913 and which they are still doing today to my Kosovo brothers."

But Mata's tirade is a bit disingenuous: He is a truck driver-turned- gun- trafficker with a financial stake in the misery of his Kosovo "brothers."

Such is the nature of arms-dealing in the Balkans. It will likely continue as Kosovo emerges as a potentially lucrative market.

After Serbian police cracked down on Kosovo Albanian "terrorists" earlier this month, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic crowed he had broken the shadowy Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). To the contrary, the killings seem to have radicalized more of the Albanian-dominated province's population.

Support for the KLA is rising, despite heated international diplomacy to stave off a new Balkan war. Growing numbers of Kosovo Albanians - as well as restive Albanians in northeastern Albania and northwestern Macedonia - are now spoiling for a fight with the Serbs. One Kosovo Albanian, now living in Albania, said the police onslaught was a virtual declaration of war.

"History has shown us that no nation has won its freedom through negotiation, only through fighting," says the man, who claims he fled from Serbian police several months ago. "I hope this war continues because it's the only way to rid ourselves of the Serbs."

But for the KLA to strike back effectively, it will need arms: Serb police say they destroyed or confiscated a significant quantity of weapons. On Wednesday, they displayed piles of bombs, guns, and grenades they said had been taken from Kosovo "terrorists."

Military analysts suggest that potential arms smugglers could include those operating within Croatia, Bosnia, even Slovenia - Serbia's partners in the old Yugoslavia. Before Mr. Milosevic sparked its disintegration a decade ago, Yugoslavia was one of Europe's top arms producers.

There is no love lost for Milosevic in those former republics.

But a more surefire source for rearmament may be the ethnic Albanian brethren across Kosovo's mountainous borders with Albania and Macedonia. The threat is real: Albanians, while desperately poor, are a remarkably well-armed people, courtesy of the chaos that engulfed Albania last year.

The crisis was triggered by the collapse of massive pyramid-investment schemes. Looters raided weapons depots the Army had abandoned. Suddenly, Albania was awash in guns. Some 1 million guns were stolen in a gun-loving Balkan nation of only 3.2 million.

Automatic rifles were selling on the street for $60. And from March to May, many were easily smuggled to the Albanians of Macedonia and Kosovo through porous mountain passes.

Yet the gun-running racket isn't what it used to be. First of all, it's become much more risky. In recent weeks Serbia has beefed up patrols along the 60-mile border between Kosovo and Albania, particularly at the lone border crossing. They aim to stamp out both trafficking and the possibility of Albanian volunteers pouring into Kosovo.

Serb sentries are known for being quick to fire. And if itchy trigger fingers weren't enough, snow makes the preferred routes impassable. The mountain ridge ranges from 1,500 to 6,000 feet.

In northwest Macedonia, meanwhile, an American-led UN mission remains on alert for suspicious border activity. The half-a-million-strong Albanian minority there is also waging a battle for greater autonomy. If Kosovo erupts, these Albanians would likely join the fray.

The Albanian government itself has also sought to clamp down on gun trafficking. It claims to have recovered 40 percent of the looted weapons.

"Whatever gun traffic we cannot prevent," said Ben Blushi, spokesman for Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano, "no doubt the Serb patrols will." Traffic has indeed been curtailed, but not eliminated.

Mata uses Kukes (pronounced KOO-cus), an Albanian city of 28,000 just 14 miles from the Kosovo checkpoint, as his home base. He said his last delivery - five AK-47s - was made one month ago. Through his web of contacts around town, the unemployed truck driver bought the guns for $100 apiece. In Kosovo, he said, they sold for 1,000 German marks ($550) each. He wouldn't divulge how many he's sold in the past year, nor how he delivers them.

Mata is one of perhaps a dozen professional traffickers in the region, say local observers. But they also point out that the typical smuggler is the individual driven by his economic plight, who loads guns and other salable goods onto a donkey and tries his luck through a mountain pass. The average Albanian salary, after all, is now down to about $60 a month.

Business aside, to some the trickle of guns into Kosovo seems a cruel joke. If war breaks out, the Kosovars, as they are known, would tangle with a large, experienced, and well-equipped army. It could be a recipe for slaughter.

"Come on," says one Kukes cafe owner. "The Kosovars know the Serbs have heavy weapons. What are they going to do with a rifle that we gave them?"

Indeed, the Kosovars would have to look elsewhere. Mata predicts Albanian smugglers would barely make a dent in the Kosovo market. Echoing the opinions of Western military analysts, Mata agrees the top traders will likely come from within the former Yugoslavia. Even from Serbia itself.

Financing the weapons would likely be arranged in part by Kosovars living abroad in places like Germany and Switzerland.

"If they decide they want weapons, they'll get weapons," Mata says. "There are traffickers in Serbia with truckloads of weapons who are not after any nationalist cause. Only money."

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