Rise of Armed Civilians Adds to Kosovo Dangers

Visit to province this week by radical Serb official may have sparked a new spate of ethnic killings by Serbs.

Less than 24 hours after Serbian radical leader Vojislav Seselj came to this bucolic farming village in western Kosovo, the killing began.

On a tree-lined street lies an unidentified body. In the neighboring village of Lodza, ethnic Albanians speak of guerrilla fighters killed in combat.

Mr. Seselj, a recently appointed vice prime minister in the Serbian government, toured parts of Kosovo, including the Serb-inhabited village of Gorazdevac, on July 5. His visit, Serbs and Albanians say, provoked a new round of civilian fighting.

In what Western diplomats say is a dangerous new trend in Kosovo, Seselj and other Serbian officials have begun to encourage Serbian civilians to take up arms. In some cases, authorities have distributed guns to the Serbian population.

"Albanian terrorists only exist because our police [force] is letting them," Mr. Seselj told reporters recently, referring to the independence-seeking Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which is estimated to control 40 percent of the region.

The irregular fighting in Kosovo comes just as the international community has begun to press for a cease-fire. Led by the six-country Contact Group on the former Yugoslavia, diplomats this week launched a monitoring mission that would help pinpoint areas of conflict and presumably pave the way for a halt in the fighting.

But, say diplomats in the region, armed civilians could harm prospects for peace because they are not easily controlled by the centralized government in Belgrade. The same can be said of the KLA, which lacks a clear chain of command.

Furthermore, the growth of independent fighters indicates that the Serbs are losing control of Kosovo, which they consider to be the cradle of their culture and is also a source of mineral wealth.

"This is alarming," says a Western observer in Kosovo. "We don't know what to expect from these [armed civilians] and we don't know if they can be controlled."

Already Serbian civilians have set up armed roadblocks in several regions.

According to a KLA fighter in Lodza, the fighting near Gorazdevac began when members of the KLA approached the house of a Serb and asked him to surrender his arms.

"[The Serb] let them into the house and then opened fire," says the KLA fighter, who identified himself as Mehdi. "Two of our men were killed as they tried to run."

The arming of the populace is reminiscent of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, when volunteers committed some of the worst atrocities of the war.

One leader of the irregular forces during that time was Seselj, who once bragged that his men mutilated Croatians during the 1991-1995 war. Since then, Seselj, leader of the Serbian Radical Party, has become a partner in Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's government.

But unlike in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, the civilians are fighting inside the borders of Yugoslavia and fall under the responsibility of Belgrade.

"If these people commit atrocities, then there would be no doubt that Milosevic is responsible," says Dejan Anastasijevic, a reporter for the independent Belgrade-based magazine Vreme.

Already more than 300 people, mostly ethnic Albanian civilians, have died in Kosovo since the Serbian forces launched a Feb. 28 crackdown.

While the ranks of the KLA have swelled in recent months, Serbian conscripts have become less willing to fight for Kosovo, where some 2 million ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1. The arming of locals is an apparent attempt by the Serbs to bolster their forces.

Also fighting on the Serbian side are irregular police forces.

"Every day we see paramilitaries driving through the streets, trying to intimidate us," says Tahir Demaj, vice president of the ethnic Albanian Human Rights Council in Pec.

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