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Serbia: Albanian Insurgents Between A Rock And A Hard Place

  • Jolyon Naegele

U.S. troops of the NATO-led peacekeeping force, KFOR, launched a large-scale search operation in at least five Kosovar Albanian villages near the border with Serbia this week. KFOR arrested nine people, seized numerous weapons, and confiscated over 200 uniforms believed destined for ethnic Albanian insurgents in southern Serbia. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from the ethnically Albanian village of Dobrosin in southern Serbia.

Dobrosin, Serbia; 20 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A beat-up old station wagon, filled with loaves of bread, races down the muddy road from the boundary with Kosovo into the south Serbian village of Dobrosin. The vehicle disappears into the farmyard headquarters of an ethnic-Albanian insurgent group. The group calls itself the Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac, and Medvedje, the UCPMB, which models itself, not only in name but also in uniform and tactics, after the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK).

A posse of four UCPMB military police emerge from the farmyard, sporting black uniforms inherited from the now disbanded UCK but with new UCPMB patches. They apologize to a couple of reporters, saying they are under strict orders not to grant interviews. Then they disappear, and a few minutes later three UCPMB soldiers walk past, dressed in green fatigues, one with an old AK-47 machine gun, the second with a high-powered Yugoslav Army sniper gun, the third with a bandoleer slung across his chest. Whether the trio was a genuine patrol or was just being paraded for the benefit of two reporters is unclear.

Before the UCPMB ceased talking to reporters, its representatives said earlier this month that they hope to draw NATO into a conflict with Yugoslavia in southern Serbia and expel Serbian forces from the three Albanian-inhabited districts. NATO and the United States reject such a scenario. KFOR has responded by cracking down on gun-running between Kosovo and the UCPMB, culminating in the searches of at least five Kosovo border villages this week.

At least 70 percent of Dobrosin's 1,200 residents, virtually all Albanian, have left the village for the relative safety of Kosovo in the last nine months.

The village is inside a five-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone into which Serbian police but not soldiers are allowed. Remaining residents say the police have repeatedly mistreated them at a checkpoint at Lucani, 5 kilometers down the road.

Dobrosin looks much the way any Kosovar Albanian village looked two years ago -- before fighting erupted between Serbian forces and the UCK. The mosque and minaret are intact, and there are no burned-out homes. And in marked contrast to Kosovo, where the electricity is off as often as it is on, the Serbian electricity supply to Dobrosin still functions without interruption even though villagers have been unable to pay their electricity bills to the utility. A member of the village council says remaining residents are paying what they believe they owe the electric company into an escrow fund established by the council.

Some 300 meters away, up on the ridge that is the boundary with Serbia, U.S. KFOR tanks sit side by side, their cannons pointing into Serbia. A pair of KFOR helicopters patrol the hilly boundary, just skimming the treetops as they race down the valley.

A villager who asks that his name not be used says the proximity of the Americans, though somewhat reassuring, is no guarantee that the village is safe from Serbian harassment.

At present, the Albanian population of southern Serbia is estimated to number between 70,000 and 100,000. Presevo district is estimated to be 92 percent Albanian, Bujanovac 65 percent and Medvedje 35 percent.

Shefket Hasani, a grizzled UCK veteran in Dobrosin who claims to be a co-founder of the UCPMB, says the Serbs must not be allowed to expel the Albanians from the three southern districts.

"I cannot permit these three districts to remain under Serbian slavery, because they are 100 percent Albanian."

Hasani says "fighting with rifles" is the only way to ensure an end to the constant harassment, beatings, confiscations, and killings. The Serbs killed two Albanian civilians aboard a tractor returning from a wood-cutting expedition last January (Jan. 26) just 600 meters from Dobrosin but out of sight of the U.S. base on the ridge. Hasani notes the UCPMB first emerged in uniform at the funeral of the two Saqipi brothers.

"The headquarters of the UCPMB is here [in Dobrosin] and this is where we first began to fight. But there are also other regional headquarters in all the villages and they are organizing."

Hasani insists the UCPMB is well armed. He says that as the Serbs have blocked off the village, all supplies must come into Dobrosin from Kosovo, where villagers go to shop or to attend school.

A member of the village council, Shefkiu Selami, says residents established the council after Serbian paramilitaries killed two inhabitants of Dobrosin last October 15. He says the council contacted district authorities and asked that the paramilitaries be barred from the village. But the harassment continued.

"In mid-December, a [Serbian] patrol ordered a group of 15 or 16 people returning to Dobrosin from shopping in Bujanovac to lie down in the road. The police walked all over them, stepping on their necks, and then a policeman put an automatic rifle in someone's ear. But at that moment the chairman of the Bujanovac district came and ordered the police to end the harassment."

At the second-largest U.S. KFOR base in Kosovo, Camp Montieth in Gnjilane, spokesman First Lieutenant Scott Olson says KFOR estimates that some 30 UCPMB members are operating in the Dobrosin area. But he says it is unclear whether they are part of a larger organization.

But Olson rules out a 100 percent guarantee that KFOR can halt all gun running to the UCPMB.

"Absolutely not. The border for Kosovo is very porous, as I am sure you know. There are a lot of trails that are traveled by foot, by animal, by tractor. There are things like that that we don't have the resources to monitor. You know that is a tremendous stretch of property that we don't have the resources to keep tabs on every one of those access points 100 percent of the time."

KFOR's commander, General Klaus Reinhardt, says the situation on the boundary between Kosovo and southern Serbia is a threat to Kosovo's peace and security and could develop into a regional security issue. He said KFOR is prepared to take all necessary action to ensure that Kosovo is not used as a staging base for exporting violence into southern Serbia.