Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Albanian Fighters on the March

A new Kosovo-based guerrilla force says it is prepared to go to war to unite Albanian populated areas of southern Serbia with the province.
By Llazar Semini

A United Nations worker, shot and wounded near Dobrasin on Tuesday, February 29, became the latest victim in a fierce conflict which is brewing in a predominantly Albanian region of southern Serbia, close to the Kosovo border.


Marcel Grogan was driving a UN vehicle when Albanian guerrillas opened fire. Grogan, now recovering from gunshot wounds in a US military hospital in Kosovo, said the gunmen appeared embarrassed when they realised he was a UN official - they claimed to have mistaken his vehicle for Serbian one.


There is concern that increasing clashes between Albanian guerrillas and Serb forces around Preshevo, Medvegje and Bujanovac are fuelling the flight of Albanian refugees into Kosovo. The International Rescue Committee, one of the largest refugee agencies operating in Kosovo, estimates 1,300 refugees have trickled into Gjilan - the nearest town inside Kosovo - in the last two months. Over 100 have arrived in the last three days alone.


Last Saturday night, a group of armed Albanians - allegedly members of a new guerrilla group, the Preshevo, Medvegje and Bujanovac Liberation Army (UCPMB) - attacked a Serbian police patrol in Kocul, killing one officer and injuring three others.


An Albanian killed in the clash was wearing the insignia of the Kosovo Protection Force (TMK) -- a civilian force formed by the United Nations mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) - from former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). Both UNMIK's spokeswoman, Susan Manuel, and TMK commander, Agim Ceku, denied the Albanian casualty was a member of the protection force.


Rumours have long been circulating that spring will bring renewed violence to the region. Some have pointed accusing fingers at Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, arguing that by provoking trouble in Kosovo he achieves two ends - undermining UN efforts to govern the province and distracting attention from his on-going bid to crush any moves by Montenegro towards independence.


NATO and the United States have warned Milosevic not to increase the Yugoslav military and police presence in and around Preshevo, Bujanovac and Medvegje, home to some 75,000 ethnic Albanians. US troops from Camp Bondsteel near Ferizaj (Urasovac in Serbian) have intensified their 24-hour patrols to prevent Albanian extremists and weapons crossing the frontier into Serbia.


The UCPMB was allegedly formed in January following the killing of two Albanian youths from Dobrasin. The organisation claims to be made up of men from eastern Kosovo. It welcomes volunteers from other parts of the province. They wear insignia similar to the UCK, replacing the K for Kosovo with PMB for Preshevo, Medvegje, Bujanovac - the three major towns in the Albanian border enclave."Someone had to come out and protect the Albanian population of this area from Serb paramilitaries," one UCPMB commander said in an interview with the Albanian daily Zeri.


The UCPMB made their first public appearance at the funeral of the two young Albanians, just as the UCK did at the beginning of the Kosovo conflict following the murder of an Albanian teacher in Llaushe."At the moment our soldiers control the area of Dobrasin. If the population is endangered in other parts we are ready to defend them," the UCPMB commander said.


The UCPMB want the region to unite with Kosovo. "We do not ask for much, just the right of self-determination," they say. The new force aims to achieve this by harassing Serb forces and generally stirring up trouble in the border region. The new force is "hoping that the Serbs will retaliate with excessive force against civilian populations and create a wave of outrage and pressure on KFOR to respond," a UN official told the New York Times. "It's explosive and dangerous, and we hope KFOR uses restraint."


Kosovo's Albanian political leaders have yet to voice any real condemnation of the incidents in the area. They fear Milosevic may exploit the situation to cause trouble inside Kosovo itself. A new influx of Albanian refugees could only worsen the already unstable situation in the province.


A conflict would serve Milosevic's ends, distracting international and domestic attention from the escalating tensions between Belgrade and Montenegro.And it would surely have a knock-on effect in neighbouring Macedonia, where unrest is brewing. Indeed, Skopje has already tightened border security.


NATO involvement in the intensifying conflict in southern Serbia seems unlikely, at least in the short term. On Monday KFOR spokesman, Henning Philipp, said there was concern over the security situation in Kosovo, but insisted there was no evidence of Belgrade breaching the Kumanovo agreement by deploying troops within the five-kilometer buffer zone along the border.


US army spokesman, Scott Olsen, said the only thing that would cause KFOR to intervene inside Serbia would be atrocities. He said the US military had asked KFOR command to make clear what constituted an atrocity. Meanwhile, KFOR announced plans on Monday to hold military exercises in Kosovo from March 19 to April 10 aimed at reinforcing its commitment to the defence of the province.


Llazar Semini is IWPR's Kosovo Project Manager in Pristina.