Small groups, but big trouble?

NATO clamped a curfew on Mitrovica yesterday, as concerns grew of ethnic unrest beyond Kosovo.

Isa Beciri spent 10 years wandering around Europe, because as a young ethnic Albanian in Serbia, he could expect few opportunities at home. But since returning in November he has found a new goal, trading his civilian clothes for army fatigues.

"My village needs me, so I can't leave," he says as he sits in a friend's living room, a pair of Kalashnikov assault rifles propped against the wall. "I'd rather not have military action. But the situation is forcing us."

Mr. Beciri claims to be part of the Liberation Army of Preshevo, Medvedja, and Bujahovac (PMBLA), a small group of ethnic Albanian fighters that appears to be gaining strength in this part of Serbia just east of Kosovo.

Little is known about the group, but its potential for bringing a new round of instability to the Balkans has Western officials worried.

The US Army estimates that the group numbers about 30 and growing. Western officials suspect that more than one group may exist, although they believe Dobrosin is their stronghold. Many of the fighters appear to be from Dobrosin and other places in the Presevo Valley of southern Serbia, but not all. An 18-year-old fighter standing guard at the group's headquarters this week said he came from Kosovo.

Like Kosovo, which is technically still part of Serbia although under de facto control of the NATO-led protection force, or KFOR, since last June, the area has a large ethnic Albanian majority. Ethnic Albanians call it "eastern Kosovo" and say the area was wrongly separated from the province when borders were drawn last century.

Many of the ethnic Albanian fighters here are thought to be former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the force that fought for Kosovo's independence. The patch PMBLA fighters wear on their shoulders reproduces the Albanian black eagle design used by the officially disbanded KLA.

Ethnic Albanian fighters in Dobrosin portray themselves as simple men with simple aims. "We are just trying to defend ourselves," says Beciri.

But Western officials believe they may be hoping to unite the region with Kosovo. They say that some of the PMBLA's actions, such as attacks two weeks ago on a Serb police checkpoint and on an unmarked United Nations car, wounding a UN worker, demonstrate an aggressiveness that goes beyond mere defense.

Together with recent violence between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in the divided town of Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, the trouble in the Presevo Valley poses the greatest threat yet to the Kosovo peacekeeping mission.

An early curfew was in effect in Mitrovica yesterday, a day after street clashes injured 24 civilians and 16 French peacekeepers.

NATO officials are trying to restrain the unrest. The NATO military commander, Gen. Wesley Clark, and other Western officials have warned ethnic Albanian leaders in Kosovo not to support the insurgents across the border. They also have tried publicly to discourage ethnic Albanian hopes that the peacekeepers might intervene.

The situation poses a special dilemma for the US Army, whose soldiers are stationed a little more than a quarter mile from Beciri's village.

The Americans worry that PMBLA fighters might try to draw them into a confrontation with Serbian police. They also worry about the grimmer possibility that Serbian police could attack unarmed ethnic Albanians. "That's probably my No.1 concern," says Lt. Col. Jeffrey Snow, commander of the American forces along the border. "I do not want to be placed in a position where we have American soldiers observing atrocities and cannot take action to stop that."

Diplomats and military officials say Western leaders are considering the circumstances under which peacekeepers might intervene.

In recent months, events here have borne an ominous resemblance to the build-up to war in Kosovo. The UN refugee agency estimates as many as 14,000 people have fled. Relief workers have heard few reports of physical violence, but say people complain of harassment and intimidation by Serbian police. Paula Ghedini, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, says ethnic Albanians have grown increasingly fearful in recent weeks. "They're ready to flee at any moment," she says.

Fatusha Ramadani left Dobrosin with 14 members of her family, including 10 grandchildren, after Serbian police killed two ethnic Albanian brothers in January. "We were afraid they would shoot the children or take my son," she says.

Ethnic Albanians maintain the Serbian police and paramilitary units that left Kosovo last spring are now based in the Presevo Valley. Western officials have accused Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic of provoking conflict in the area, just as they have accused him of undermining peace efforts in Kosovo. Diplomats and military officials say Mr. Milosevic is likely to do this with police rather than any kind of military action.

"He's too clever to do that," says one Western diplomat. "But he can certainly manipulate the situation there. And he will turn the tap on and off to keep KFOR off balance."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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