The NLA's Arms Suppliers

Weapons traffickers weave an intricate network to counter increasing KFOR seizures on the Macedonian border.

The NLA's Arms Suppliers

Weapons traffickers weave an intricate network to counter increasing KFOR seizures on the Macedonian border.

When the conflict was still under way between Yugoslav Army and ethnic Albanian fighters in Southern Serbia, Sam's Pizzeria in Vitina was one of the best places to buy arms.

Nowadays you don't get so many folk hanging out there. In fact the place is usually pretty empty. When I passed by, Jahi, the waiter was hunched over a chair gossiping with a couple of journalists. "You came in too late. Presevo is over. The smugglers are gone."

In fact, they have just gone under cover. As the Macedonian conflict continued apace with barely a breath taken between ceasefire deals and shell bursts, arms smuggling from Kosovo over the border became more circumspect. The traffickers continued their work, but in ways less obvious to the troops monitoring the lines where mule trains and soldiers still slipped under cover of darkness.

The longer the conflict continues, the larger the number of sources of weapons. The wiser KFOR gets to the trafficker's tricks, the less transparent the smugglers ways become.

Just about everyone in the region is now believed to be pitching in: Albanians, Serbs, Bosnians, Bulgarians are also suspected of exploiting the Balkans' latest opportunity for arms sales. Yet Kosovo remains supplier Number One and, as with every profitable trade in this country, it transgresses ethnic, religious or any other ties.

"Serbs give us the best deals, while Albanians from Albania give us a hard time," one National Liberation Army, NLA, commander commented.

KFOR patrols stepped up their border monitoring following repeated accusations from Skopje that they weren't doing enough to stem supplies to the NLA. Since the beginning of July, KFOR troops on the Kosovo-Macedonia border have arrested around 200 suspected ethnic-Albanian fighters, seized scores of weapons, uncovered a number of arms caches and prevented other consignments of military equipment from crossing over into Macedonia.

Of those arrested over the past few weeks, 20 have been handed over to UN authorities in Kosovo on illegal trafficking charges. KFOR patrols also seized a large consignment of arms being smuggled via a mule train from Dragas, in southern Kosovo.

The seizures marked a more energetic attempt by both US and German troops to counter the smuggling of arms after US President George Bush exhorted troops at the Bondsteel military base to clamp down on trafficking to rebels in Macedonia.

In Vitina, a few kilometres from the Macedonian border, curfew has been tightened in recent weeks. But, as trade at Sam's Pizzeria bears out, arms seem to be in scant supply. "We're trying our best," said US Major Thomas Kurk, satisfied with the hauls of the last six months.

Since KFOR launched operation Eagle in February, peacekeepers report seizing around 600 automatic rifles, 120 pistols, some 190 missiles and supportive weapons, 1,000 anti-tank weapons, more than 1,350 grenades and mines. "It is reasonable to think," KFOR spokesman Roy Brown claimed, "that our operations are damaging the operation of the so-called NLA."

Even so, ever since the start of the conflict in Macedonia in February the international authorities have denied the existence of a well-organised trafficking network supporting the ethnic Albanian insurgency in Macedonia. Meanwhile the authorities in Skopje continue to claim that all NLA fighters and their arms originated in Kosovo.

"There are some elements in Kosovo and [southern] Serbia who feel they share a cause with Albanians living in Macedonia," said commander of the multinational brigade east, William David.

Opinions like these led to moves, directed from Washington, to clamp down on NLA support within Kosovo. Hans Haekkerup, chief of the UN mission in Kosovo, intervened personally last month, demanding the resignation of five members of the Kosovo Protection Force believed to be in cahoots with their brethren over the border.

Many Macedonian Albanians fought with the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, during the 1999 war and now many are returning the favour. Among those who have shown solidarity with the Macedonian cause are ex-members of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedje and Bujanovac, UCPMB, which was disarmed this spring through a deal brokered by NATO.

"We fight for the same goal, for the cause of all Albanians and that is why we are together," said one ex-UCPMB fighter. He eschews any idea of a Greater Albania but touts the concerns of Albanian communities in their respective countries.

Another source close to the NLA confirms that the arms traffic is well-organised and operated by a large network. He said that Albania was the conduit for many of the weapons, though not the source, as weapons there were unreliable. "It's not difficult to smuggle in Albania. It's an ideal country for that," he said.

There have been some recent arms seizures in Albania, too. At the end of July, police seized four missile launchers destined for Macedonia at the port of Durres. A month before that, at the same port police seized a consignment of automatic rifles, ammunition and flak jackets.

The publisher of the Albanian Observer magazine, Teodor Misha, refutes suggestions that Albania provides arms to the conflict. Although many of the arms used by the KLA in Kosovo were robbed from army depots in social unrest in 1997, he said this proliferation of arms has ceased.

An official of the Albanian intelligence services also instances that Prime Minister Ilir Meta is clamping down on any gun running. "He is extremely strict because he knows that is a precondition from the West to continue support for his government," He said.

Blerim Haxhiaj is a journalist with Kosovo public television RTK Pristina.

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