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New conflict threatens Balkans

Serbian leaders yesterday pledged better treatment of ethnic Albanians, as unrest grows across the region.

By Alex Todorovic Special to The Christian Science Monitor / February 1, 2001



BELGRADE, YUGOSLAVIA

A surge in violence over the past 10 days in southern Serbia, Kosovo, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is underscoring how interconnected the region is despite national boundaries.

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Analysts say the clock is ticking for Belgrade to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in the southern Presevo Valley, where armed ethnic-Albanian separatists threaten to destabilize the region. The arrival of spring, and warmer weather, increases the likelihood of new military attacks.

Carl Bildt, the United Nations special coordinator for the Balkans, on Monday called Presevo, "The most serious threat to stability in the Balkans, and there is very little awareness or attention to what is about to explode."

Late last week, separatist fighters - who want to unite the Presevo area with Kosovo - launched their most serious attack in months, killing a Yugoslav soldier and wounding four others. Previous attacks have killed several Serb police officers, but the incident marked the first death of an Army soldier.

In Kosovo, the NATO-led KFOR protection force is sending reinforcements to Mitrovica, where French peacekeepers fired tear gas at ethnic-Albanian demonstrators yesterday in a second day of violent protests. The demonstrations follow Monday's killing of an Albanian teenager, in which Serbs are suspected. The ethnically divided town has been a past flashpoint for violence.

On Jan. 22, ethnic Albanian guerrillas attacked a police station in Macedonia, killing a police officer in the first such organized attack there in the post-Kosovo era.

But the hub of regional unrest is Presevo, where the estimated 700-member Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedje, and Bujanovac (PMBLA) operates inside a three-mile-wide security zone that is off limits to both NATO troops and the Yugoslav Army. The buffer zone was established in 1999, at the end of the NATO bombing campaign.

The latest attacks have touched off a flurry of international activity that resulted in a UN Security Council condemnation on Tuesday and a Serbian proposal to better integrate the ethnic-Albanian population. At the same time, Yugoslavia is pressing NATO to narrow the buffer zone to give the guerrillas less room to operate. How Serbia - Yugoslavia's dominant republic - meets the challenge will likely determine what happens with the zone.

Analysts say the policies of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic - thrown out last October in a popular uprising - contributed greatly to the volatile situation. Local ethnic-Albanian leaders have complained of human rights abuses by Serbian police and say they remain second-class citizens. "As in Kosovo, Albanian exclusion from schools, healthcare, and other institutions forced them to create parallel structures. Serbia now needs to show its good faith in dealing with its Albanian minority population," says James Lyon, a Belgrade field officer with the International Crisis Group in Washington.

Serbia's government on Tuesday announced a major confidence-building initiative that called for a step-by-step demilitarization of the buffer zone, while integrating ethnic Albanians into the social system and respecting human rights. "Our position is integration of moderate Albanians, isolation of extremists, and putting an end to terrorism. That approach is accepted by the international community," said Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

But the avowed good intentions of Serbia's new democratic government will not bring a sudden end to the violence, say analysts. "Politicians can have the best of intentions, but the bottom line is that the armed separatists will not put down their weapons. Some sort of conflict is unavoidable," says Alexandar Radic, a military analyst with the Belgrade VIP newsletter.

"Albanians have been increasing their attacks in the hope of provoking a Serb overreaction that would undermine Serbia's democratic government," adds Mr. Lyon. American and British troops in Kosovo have stepped up border patrols, detaining 50 suspected separatists in recent weeks as they attempted to cross into Serbia proper. Still, the rugged borders remain porous and some think the US isn't doing enough. "The border is a complete sieve, and the weak US presence along the border is partly to blame for that. The United States wants to protect its troops and does not want to be patrolling dangerous borders," says Lyon.

The PMBLA, though small, has the potential to draw on support from former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the disbanded ethnic-Albanian rebel force. "A majority of the guerrilla army is based in Serbia, but their most dangerous members are experienced fighters from Kosovo," says Radic. Kosovo's ambiguous legal status is another aggravating factor. UN Resolution 1244 states that Kosovo is still part of Serbia, but the ethnic-Albanian majority overwhelmingly favors independence.

Some analysts say it's only a matter of time before the situation turns explosive. "The recent incidents in Macedonia and southern Serbia are related, if not outright orchestrated. They are related in the sense that Albanians in Macedonia have seen their brethren in Serbia and Kosovo achieve recognition through violence and are now inspired to do the same," says Paul Beaver, an editor at Jane's Defense Weekly in London. "In the next year, I foresee a gradual rise in violence in the entire region as extremist Albanian factions lose the ability to achieve their goals through political means, and increasingly resort to violence."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society