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

Albanian Rebels Threaten Presevo Accord

A new Albanian rebel group is threatening to provoke another round of fighting in southern Serbia.
By Skender Latifi

Former members of disbanded Albanian guerrilla groups in southern Serbia and Macedonia have regrouped to create a new insurgency movement on the border between Kosovo and Serbia.


The group, named the Liberation Army of Eastern Kosovo, UCKL, comprises members of the old Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, UCPMB, and the National Liberation Army, NLA, from Macedonia.


The title reflects the fact that many people in the mainly Albanian municipalities of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac call the region Eastern Kosovo.


The goal of the UCKL, which musters only about 300 fighters, is to detach the three municipalities from Serbia and join them to Kosovo, which though nominally a Serbian province, has not been under Belgrade's control since NATO's air war against Yugoslavia in 1999.


Whether they will provoke a new border crisis depends largely on the success of the Presevo peace accord, signed in May this year. The NATO-brokered deal centres on three main points: an amnesty for all Albanian fighters; greater investment in the local economy, and proportional representation for Albanians in local government and police.


First reports of the new rebel army surfaced in September, when the goal of uniting the three municipalities with Kosovo was proclaimed in an Albanian newspaper distributed among the Albanian community in southern Serbia.


The group, whose name in Albanian is Ushtia Clirimtare e Kosovws Lindore, heralded its birth by fax, sent in early September to EU observers in Vranje and Presevo.


Since then, there have been sporadic exchanges of gunfire with the Serbian police from its stronghold in six villages around Kosovska Kamenica, which lies just inside Kosovo, close to the Serbian border.


Serbia's interior ministry believes the core of the UCKL is a group of former NLA members made redundant in Macedonia following the signing of Ohrid peace agreement in August.


They also suspect the involvement of a handful of radical UCPMB fighters, including their former commander Muhamad Xhemaili, who did not disarm last May during the Presevo peace initiative and retreated to Kosovo.


The UCKL is distributing leaflets among the Albanians on the border between Kosovo and Serbia, urging them to dump the Presevo peace project, and protesting against the international community's decision to allow Yugoslav forces to re-deploy inside the border zone.


The new insurgency movement builds on former fighters' dissatisfaction with the peace deal. After the amnesty was proclaimed, many of them expected jobs in the new multi-ethnic regional police force, which the international community saw as the cornerstone of the peace process.


But the hopes of old UCPMB fighters have been mostly disappointed. Of 63 Albanians who have completed training for the new multi-ethnic police units alongside 34 Serbs, only seven are former UCPMB fighters.


The veterans' discontent builds on wider public dissatisfaction with the direction of the peace process. Local politicians are demanding fresh local elections, complaining that the last round, organised under Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000, did not represent them adequately.


Local people appear split between those who sympathise with the new rebel group and those who say violence can have no place in their strategy. The former UCPMB political leader Halil Selimi, who lives in Presevo, says the peace process had more or less failed and blames the negotiators who missed "a historic chance to solve this region's problems in a fair way".


But Riza Halimi, mayor of Presevo, who had a prominent role in ending the conflict, says a new rebel army is not the solution. He says it would be "fatal for the Presevo Albanians to mount an armed revolt in the present situation".


The Serbian authorities are confident that the new force will not derail the agreement. Goran Radosavljevic, a police official and member of the government's coordinating team for the region, says the UCKL will never achieve the strength of the old UCPMB.


But tension among both communities is rising in the meantime. Although around 2,000 Albanian refugees returned this summer to Bujanovac from Kosovo, it would only take a small incident for them to flee back to Kosovo.


The Serbs are even more worried. The number wanting to stay in Presevo is shrinking, says Nenad Mandic, of the local branch of the Democratic Party. "Around 50 families have stayed in the town but they all want to leave," he said. "The Serbian community feels insecure and sales of houses and land are up."


Skender Latifi is an Albanian journalist based in Presevo.


More IWPR's Global Voices