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By the BBC's Mark Urban
"I walked across a road into Serbia proper, unchecked by anyone"
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Tuesday, 14 March, 2000, 16:12 GMT
Eyewitness: A new Balkan flashpoint?

By Newsnight's diplomatic editor Mark Urban

On the boundary between Kosovo and Serbia proper, a new zone of conflict smoulders. In recent weeks several Serbs and ethnic Albanians have been killed in gun battles.

Thousands of refugees have already left the valley
The US has tried to tighten its control over this unofficial frontier, setting up new observation posts. Meanwhile, the State Department spokesman, visiting Kosovo, has issued the sternest warning yet to the ethnic Albanians not to make matters worse.

Thousands of refugees have already left the Presevo valley. By another of those Balkan accidents of geography, 70,000 Albanians live inside Serbia proper. The Americans have been trying to keep this an open border; 100 more families crossed over the weekend.

Nato confiscates weapons. Nevertheless when we were there, only men of military age were moving to and from the village of Dobrosin, which is now part of the rebellion against Serb control.

It is very easy to get into Dobrosin. I walked across a road into Serbia proper, unchecked by anyone. And the guerrillas are using that freedom to operate here against President Milosevic's forces.

'Shadowy force'

Belgrade's response to the new Albanian insurgency has been predictable enough: more checkpoints and patrols.

They are the sort of measures which proved only counter-productive in Kosovo. To the local people and aid workers, the arrival of tough outsiders - Serb and Albanian - is a grim reminder of what happened in Kosovo. Around 10,000 Albanians may already have fled.

Belgrade has set up checkpoints
Aid worker Paula Gheddine said: "What the internally displaced are telling us is that many of these people are strangers to them and this is the basic problem for them - that both sides are now what they call outsiders, and they seem to be playing a game that the civilian population has no information about.

"All they know is that when they hear a firefight or hear of a killing, they are so scared of [not] being able to stay in their home safely that night that they grab what possessions they can, take their children and run."

During our brief visit to Dobrosin, we caught sight of the shadowy Albanian force fighting here. It styles itself a liberation army - an offshoot of the KLA although it labours under the eminently forgettable acronym UCPBM. The 'pbm' stands for its strongholds, the Presevo valley, and the villages of Medvedja and Bujanovac.

Belgrade is hampered in its response in some of these areas by the five kilometre zone along the border with Kosovo, where armoured vehicles and special police are banned under the deal which ended the air strikes.

'Bargaining chip'

There are thought to be dozens of UCPBM fighters - not a large force, but then neither was the KLA to start with. Many Albanians believe they are trying to suck Nato into southern Serbia.

They have issued few statements and K-For's commander recently met their leaders to try and discover more about them.

Some believe the former KLA leadership tolerates the new insurgency - it denies any formal links - as a bargaining chip in its struggle for the divided town of Mitrovica. If you allow the Serbs in northern Mitrovica to get away with their partition of the city, the argument goes, we will urge the Presevo Albanians to escalate.

Tension on the border is rising
While Belgrade is accusing Nato of fomenting revolt in Presevo, K-For's mission is constrained in what it can do to clamp down on border security - let alone provide the help some Albanians would like to see.

Major General John Milne said: "That area is only five kilometres deep on the ground and within that area there is to our knowledge, not very much going on.

"The majority of the 70,000 or so Albanians who live in the Presevo area live outside this zone in what you'd really describe as Serbia proper, so in that area, in which we have absolutely no mandate, all we can do is watch."

Albanians have been commemorating the sacrifices of the KLA this week with bonfires and speeches. The new liberation army in Presevo and the continued unrest inside Kosovo mean there is still a war mentality here - and once again, they are predicting a hot spring.

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