Latest Balkan hot spot: 'eastern Kosovo'

The emergence of a KLA offshoot in Serbia sparks concerns of new instability.

A red car, no plates, screeches to a halt and discharges three men, armed, uniformed and angry - which is not unusual in Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, save for the fact that these fighters are ethnic Albanians, members of the newest "liberation army" in the Balkans.

They are swift and determined as they relieve us of passports, press cards, notebooks, cameras - even a colleague, who offers to make the trip to their headquarters to explain our journalistic quest in this hamlet only 200 yards inside the boundary separating Kosovo from the rest of southern Serbia.

After an anxious couple of hours guarded by a uniformed soldier wearing the unsnappy patch of the "Presevo, Medvedje, and Bujanovc Liberation Army," the men return. "I am very sorry about what we just did," says Trimi, the commander. "But 1,000 [yards] away from us there is a Serbian position."

His anxiety, even paranoia, is understandable. His men have shot and wounded a United Nations aid worker who made the mistake of approaching Dobrosin from the direction of a Serb police checkpoint. The road had not been used since Jan. 26, when Serbian forces shot and killed two ethnic Albanian brothers.

The PMBLA fighters, panicked by the appearance of a white car with no markings, tried to halt the vehicle and then fired - only to find two foreign aid workers. They apologized, applied first aid, and ferried them to a nearby American base on the Kosovo border.

"We feel really bad about what happened," says Rrufeja, another PMBLA commander, two days later, by which time Dobrosin has become a mini-media mecca with dozens of hacks tramping through, seeking interviews with the new guerrilla group. "The car didn't stop, and the soldiers were scared, so they fired."

Such mistakes seem unavoidable when men with Kalashnikovs face one another across a narrow, undefined no-man's-land. Rrufeja, whose nom de guerre means "lightning," describes a recent shootout with Serbian police (one dead on either side) as another unfortunate mistake. "Our soldiers were monitoring the Serb forces, and by accident there was a confrontation," he says. But accidents, especially when fatal, can trigger dangerous reactions.

Although the PMBLA might be easily dismissed as no real threat to the Serb military machine - its very name an indication of the lack of a coherent geographical identity - the simmering tensions present a serious threat to the stability of Kosovo and by extension to the NATO and UN mission here.

Presevo, Medvedje, and Bujanovc, with an ethnic Albanian population of around 80,000, were once part of Kosovo - but swapped in 1950 for the Serbian-dominated town of Leposavic, now in northern Kosovo.

Which in turn is near another flash point: the divided city of Mitrovica, where French and Italian police on Friday fired tear-gas at a Serbian mob trying to block the return home of ethnic Albanian refugees.

Add the threat of possible secession by Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in what remains of Yugoslavia, stir it up with Mr. Milosevic's practice of consolidating power by fomenting conflict, and stand well back. These three fronts offer "the potential for Milosevic to make a fair amount of mischief for the international community," according to an experienced foreign observer in Kosovo.

Several thousand ethnic Albanian refugees from Serbia have already fled what they call "eastern Kosovo" for shelter in the international protectorate next door. More than 1,300 have registered with aid officials in Gnjilane so far this year and the past few days have seen a "dramatic increase," according to one foreign worker in the area, who declined to be identified.

Bekim Dauti of the International Rescue Committee, responsible for refugees in the Gnjilane area, says the agency finds new arrivals waiting outside the office every morning. They say Serbian forces are threatening ethnic Albanians and burning houses. "As some people say, it is going to be a hot spring," says Mr Dauti. "We need to be prepared."

Qefsere Xhemaili fled her home in a village near Bujanovc on Saturday and is now living with her husband and two children in a squalid collective center in Gnjilane, along with 325 other ethnic Albanians from Serbia. "One month ago, lots of soldiers came with tanks and they are still in the village, in the center. They are based there," she explains. "More than half the villagers have left.... Of course we are scared of a war, that's why we are here."

An influx of refugees from this narrow strip of Serbia is not going to spark a humanitarian disaster by Kosovo standards, says the foreign observer. But television pictures of US soldiers standing by and watching as civilians flee a scorched-earth campaign may not sit easily with Americans in an election year.

The PMBLA fighters wear US and German camouflage and new red-and-yellow patches with their logo and the Albanian black eagle. Many are veterans of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the rebel group that opposed federal Yugoslav forces during the killings and mass expulsions of majority ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, which led to NATO airstrikes last spring. It is clear they have received logistical aid from KLA comrades. The question is, how institutionalized has such support become in the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC), which replaced the KLA?

Shaban Shala, a former KLA fighter, is the KPC commander in Gnjilane. Asked if the group is assisting comrades across the border, he replies: "Not legally."

Mr. Shala says he opposes any new conflict. "The Albanians there are not ready for a war," he says. "It is not in our interest. It is not in the interest of the international community, and they have urged us not to fall into the trap of Serbian provocations."

He adds, "We need free people who live freely wherever they are, Serbs in Kosovo and Albanians in Presevo." In Pristina, the Kosovar capital, there is concern that a new round of fighting could jeopardize the international effort in Kosovo. The line here is that locals in the border region do not support PMBLA fighters, since they fear a Serbian backlash.

In Dobrosin, civilians and soldiers argue over who is allowed to talk to visiting journalists, with the military trying (and failing) to exclude villagers. However, the constant refrain is: We will not leave our homes, we will defend our villages, by whatever means available.

In the rolling, wooded hills of the Presevo Valley, where small groups of refugees pick their way across the mountains to safety in Kosovo, there is a horrible sense of dj vu. Our PMBLA guard is chatting about his family, his three brothers and one sister, all former KLA fighters. His sister, featured on a KLA sticker staring down the sights of a sniper rifle, is away finishing her university studies. But, he says, "I am afraid she will be back here very soon."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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