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Friday, 23 February, 2001, 12:55 GMT
Tension mounts in Presevo valley
Yugoslav soldier monitors Presevo valley
Yugoslav soldier monitors Presevo valley
By Paul Anderson in the Presevo Valley

From hilltop hideouts overlooking the forests and fields of the Presevo Valley, Yugoslav army and police commanders map the movement and weaponry of the ethnic Albanian rebels.

They are part of the biggest mobilisation of Yugoslav armed forces since the end of the Kosovo conflict two years ago.

The enemy is close. Even without binoculars they can see the trenches, bunkers and gun positions of the fighters of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedje.

Serbs say K-For is failing them
Serbs say K-For is failing them
Nato estimates their numbers at between 500 and 800. The Yugoslavs put the figure at five times higher.

They say the fighters are professionally trained, and equipped with modern weapons, smuggled across the border with Kosovo.

They complain that K-For is not doing its job stopping the traffic in arms and fighters.

Restraint in the face of defiance

Before an attack on a Serb bus convoy in Kosovo, in which at least 10 people were killed, the rebels rarely hid their presence, taunting those watching them with their chants and open defiance.

Now, although the red and black colours of the Albanian flag still fly, the fighters are more circumspect.

Yugoslav commanders, like the police major I met who gave only his first name, Mladen, say the rebels have been trying to provoke them into heavy reprisals so they can say "Look the Yugoslav armed forces are at it again," just two years after the war in Kosovo.

But the politicians in Belgrade have ordered their troops to exercise maximum restraint, to fire only in response and then only with light weapons.

They believe the Albanians are trying to recover the international support they have lost, and are attempting to put the conflict in the Presevo Valley high on the international agenda, to be resolved like Bosnia and Kosovo with foreign intervention.

Yugoslavia's new political leaders are having none of it. They have launched a peace process based on improved rights for the 70,000 ethnic Albanians in the area and gradual demilitarisation.

The plan is broadly supported by the international community and all parties are now trying to agree the composition of the negotiating teams, location for talks and a date.

Kosovo Albanians insist on autonomy

Albanian community and rebel leaders in the Presevo Valley have of course an entirely different set of demands.

Kosovo Albanian rebel from UCPMB group
Kosovo Albanian rebel from UCPMB group
The political leaders want an end to what they say is institutionalised Serb persecution, but the rebels want autonomy.

Saip Kanber, the head of the Council for Human Rights in Presevo Valley, said that the Serbs had created economic organisations and state organs ethnically cleansed of Albanians.

During the Kosovo war, he said, the Yugoslav army had robbed and damaged the property of Albanians. And to cap it the police who served in Kosovo were settled in the area, bringing with them anti-Albanian feeling and the psychosis of war.

The new authorities do accept some of the charges, and blame the Milosevic factor.

Kosovo Serbs seek protection

But the outnumbered Serb civilians in southern Serbia struggle for a gesture of compromise.

They are possessed by fears of siege. The attack on Serb civilians and a later anti-mine explosion, in which three Serb policemen were killed, has spread a fear that Albanian militants have entered a new campaign against them.

Every night the Serbs say they hear grenades, mortars or rounds of anti-aircraft fire directed at their communities.

Many believe the rebels were planning to step up their activities.

Others say they fear they are trying to overrun their land to create a Greater Albania stretching from Kosovo, southern Serbia to the western part of Macedonia, where there have been recent clashes.

They feel underprotected by the Yugoslav forces massing in the area, and, perhaps for the first time in their lives, powerless.

They want the army to move in and wipe out the rebels.

But their best hope must be that the talks get started and a deal for lasting peace is reached soon.

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See also:

29 Nov 00 | Europe
Presevo's uneasy peace
16 Feb 01 | Europe
Serbs die in Kosovo bus blast
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