Sitting in a whitewashed Serbian farmhouse dressed in a nondescript camouflage uniform, his Chinese Kalashnikov AK-56 assault rifle leaning against the wall, Muhamet Xhemaili is certain of his mission.
"We don't want war, we just want the Serbs to move back from this area," he says. "We are ready to respond should Serb units move forward. The Serbs have been emptying [ethnic] Albanian villages inside Serbia. Our aim is to stop them doing this. We need political help and military help from the international community."
That help isn't likely to be forthcoming. In fact, NATO and the Yugoslav government are working to thwart the efforts of Mr. Xhemaili, an ethnic-Albanian rebel commander in this disputed pocket of southern Serbian territory.
For the past several weeks, the estimated 300-strong Liberation Army for Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovoac - known by its Albanian-language acronym UCPMB - has been testing the resolve of the world's most powerful military alliance, as well as the leadership skills of newly elected Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica.
Occupying some 60 square miles of southern Serbia along Kosovo's eastern boundary, the rebels are a flashpoint that threatens regional stability in the Balkans. "The Presevo Valley is the most important worry of the European Union," said Frank Placon, head of the European Union monitoring mission in Kosovo after a visit to the area last month.
The rebels want to unite the valley with Kosovo, where majority ethnic Albanians envision eventual independence from Serbia. The region has been under NATO and United Nations administration since June 1999, following nearly three months of NATO airstrikes to end a crackdown on ethnic Albanians by the regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
No chance, say authorities in Belgrade. The Presevo Valley, and Kosovo, are part of Serbia, they contend, and the UCPMB fighters are terrorists and criminals.
Inside Kosovo, it's impossible to miss the province's eastern demarcation line: At the final checkpoint, American and Russian paratroopers block the road, checking every vehicle for weapons and stopping all ethnic Albanian men between 18 and 40 from crossing the boundary.
Yesterday, KFOR, the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo, announced it had detained eight suspected UCPMB fighters, along with a small amount of light weaponry. Serb police and troops claim the UCPMB has attacked them in separate incidents over the past three days, using mortars and automatic weapons.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, says that more than 4,600 displaced people have fled their homes in the Presevo Valley region since fighting erupted late last month, when the UCPMB attacked Serb police and military positions, killing four policemen.
The issue involves NATO peacekeepers because the contested area sits firmly inside the Ground Safety Zone, a three-mile wide buffer zone that runs parallel to Kosovo's boundary with Serbia. The buffer zone initially was put into place to keep Yugoslav forces and NATO troops apart, in the wake of the June 1999 agreement that allowed international troops to occupy Kosovo. President Kostunica has charged NATO with failing in its obligation to provide security in the area. "This area is a test, not only for the new [Yugoslav] government, but also for the democratic world," said Zoran Djindjic, coordinator of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition that backed Kostunica during September's presidential election.
Serbia is due to hold parliamentary elections Dec. 23, and if his coalition is successful, Mr. Djindjic is expected to be named prime minister of the dominant Yugoslav republic.
"This territory is a top priority for us.... Serbia has the right and the strength to defend its territory," he said after touring Serb military positions in the Presevo Valley last week. Djindjic added that Belgrade is seeking NATO acceptance for a plan to remove the UCPMB from the area immediately after the vote. "We're seeking to use all legitimate means against the terrorists and certainly not against civilians.... If [the international community] does not respond, we'll take it as support to react."
Both Kostunica and Djindjic want to avoid any radical actions prior to elections, for fear that if they deal with the UCPMB in the same brutal style as former President Milosevic, they will lose vital Western financial and political support, as well as crucial moderate votes back home.
"Right now is a very good time for the [Yugoslav] government to get international aid and assistance. However, this would be difficult unless there is peace in the region," Eric Morris, UNHCR's Kosovo head of mission said Sunday after meeting Serbian and Albanian officials in the Presevo Valley.
Meanwhile, in the small whitewashed farmhouse in the farming village of Muhoc, rebel Commander Xhemaili claims Serb troops and police already have begun their push.
"Even during the cease-fire, the Serbs have been attacking," he says. "Three days ago, using silenced weapons, they attacked our positions, wounding two men."
Material from the wire services was used for this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society