Serbs and ethnic Albanians brace for a renewed conflict

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

PRESEVO, Serbia-Montenegro -- In the shadows of a possible war with Iraq, another crisis is looming in this troubled corner of the Balkans, where ethnic Albanian militants are preparing a fresh challenge of Serbian rule.

A former commander of ethnic Albanian rebels in Serbia's southern Presevo Valley said he and his men are ready to launch a new insurgency this spring aimed at breaking the region away from Serbia and joining it with neighboring Kosovo.

"The glory days will return -- and this time we will fight until the end," the 29-year-old commander, who goes only by his first name, Murteza, told The Associated Press.

The United Nations and the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo are playing down the risk of renewed conflict. U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Daniel J. Keefe, the commander of U.S. troops in the province, said Monday that "we do not see a threat of increased extremist activity."

But in an ominous sign of rebel activity in the area, which has long been a flashpoint between Serbs and restive ethnic Albanians agitating for autonomy, a Serb police officer was killed and two others wounded Sunday when their car ran over a land mine. The Serbian government branded the attack a "terrorist act."

The goal of the ethnic Albanian majority in the region 190 miles south of Belgrade is to shake off Serbian rule and join Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians are a majority.

Kosovo has been under NATO control and U.N. administration since Serbian troops left the province in 1999 after a 78-day alliance bombing campaign ended former President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown against ethnic Albanians.

Milosevic was unseated in 2000 and is now on trial before the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, for charges stemming from that bloody conflict and earlier wars in Bosnia and Croatia.

By attempting to join with Kosovo, the Presevo Valley's ethnic Albanians would end up under U.N. protection and closer to their ultimate goal: full independence.

Many analysts believe the militants may take advantage of the world's preoccupation with the crisis in Iraq to relaunch a rebellion in southern Serbia.

'Freedom for our boys'

Murteza, dressed in gray sweater, camouflage trousers and well-worn military boots, joined some 7,000 of his ethnic kin from the town of Presevo at a rally last week demanding more autonomy for the region and the release of several detainees.

Murteza claims he has dozens of eager young fighters under his command. He would not say what kinds of arms his force has; two years ago, it had infantry weapons and light anti-tank arms.

"We demand fresh talks about the Presevo Valley, and freedom for our boys," said Orhan Rexhepi, a local leader of the ethnic Albanian Movement for Democratic Prosperity.

The Serbs, however, have vowed never to give up any more territory to ethnic Albanians.

In response to the police raids, the Albanian National Army, a shadowy rebel group opposed to the 2001 peace deal, recently announced the mobilization of its members in Kosovo, according to Serbian government claims.

Nebojsa Covic, Serbia's deputy prime minister in charge of the region, said the government had information that ethnic Albanian militants "were grouping in the Kosovo towns of Kosovska Kamenica and Gnjilane" just across the border.

The Serbian government has demanded that the U.N. mission and NATO troops in Kosovo prevent an imminent spillover of ethnic Albanian militants from the province into the Presevo Valley.

Although ethnic Albanians view the recent police raids as a provocation, Covic said there would be additional raids aimed at seizing illegal weapons and that he could not rule out "possible incidents."

"We will not negotiate anew with the terrorists," he said.

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