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Thursday, 24 May, 2001, 08:49 GMT 09:49 UK
What next for ethnic Albanian rebels?
K-For troops search Albanians
K-For has been searching Albanians on Kosovo's border
By Nick Thorpe in Skopje

At Gate B of the Monteith US army base in south-east Kosovo, there is a steady trickle of ethnic Albanian rebels from nearby Serbia.

All are in civilian dress and none carries weapons. Each is registered and photographed by American soldiers, and invited to sign a piece of paper acknowledging that they will not be allowed to return to southern Serbia for the foreseeable future. And then they can go.

A Serbian special police team member flashes a three finger salute while approaching a former Albanian rebel stronghold
Yugoslav forces are reoccupying Serbia's buffer zones
They walk away as free men, into the dusty town of Gnjilane, to catch a bus to somewhere else in Kosovo.

They have escaped prosecution in Serbia as terrorists but their future role, as a factor of stability or instability in the Balkans, remains uncertain.

In southern Serbia a formula was devised by Nato mediators, and accepted by both the guerrillas and the Yugoslav authorities, which allows for an immediate halt to the bloodshed.

Hundreds of guerrillas have already entered Kosovo, to take advantage of the amnesty. The final figure - by the 31 May deadline - may run into the thousands.

Policy change

For the past 15 months their group, known as the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB) has been fighting Serbian security forces in the Presevo Valley.

Child in UCPMB uniform
The UCPMB appeals to several generations of Albanians
Taking advantage of the peace terms which ended the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia two years ago, the guerrillas set up their bases in a narrow, five-kilometre buffer zone ringing Kosovo.

The zone was originally meant to prevent clashes between K-For, the Nato-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, and the Yugoslav army.

But the fall of Slobodan Milosevic last October, and the coming to power of a democratic, pro-Western government in Belgrade, caused a dramatic shift in policy.

Serbia's new leaders began to speak about rights for the large Albanian minority in the Presevo valley and were even willing to sit with Albanian rebel leaders - 'terrorists' as they call them - to strike a deal.

Sister group

The situation so far has been very different in nearby Macedonia. If the KLA, - the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army - was the mother of the UCPMB, then the other daughter in the family is the NLA - the National Liberation Army of Macedonian Albanians.

Once again the Balkans are teetering on a knife-edge, between peace and war.

They revealed their existence in February this year, with an attack on a police station north of the city of Tetovo. In March, they seized a number of villages in the same area.

Shelled by the army, they withdrew with few casualties on either side and the army declared victory.

But the rebels simply regrouped and occupied another string of villages, just north of the city of Kumanovo.

Since then, a new government of national unity has been formed in Skopje. But the rebels treat the Albanian politicians in that government with contempt, and claim to be the real representatives of Albanian aspirations in Macedonia - to win equal rights.

The Macedonian media and visiting western statesmen describe them as terrorists. But the NLA wear uniforms, control checkpoints, and do not bomb civilian targets.

Each day they have been opening fire at police and army positions above Kumanovo and, increasingly, above Tetovo again. And every day the Macedonian army has been shelling them from the front lines - sometimes less than a kilometre away.

Unbearable situation

That situation was becoming increasingly unbearable for all sides. Rexhep, an UCPMB fighter from southern Serbia, said he would join the rebels in Macedonia "if the nation needs me".

Macedonian special police
Fighting is continuing in Macedonia
Each day, Albanian newspapers in Kosovo list the alleged atrocities of the Macedonian army against the Albanians in Macedonia, just as the Macedonian media write of the alleged atrocities committed by the Albanian "terrorists".

Meanwhile 10,000 civilians remain in the cellars of villages like Slupcane, Vakcince, Lojane and Lipkovo, in northern Macedonia, as their homes are torn apart by shells.

NLA withdrawal?

Several sides predicted something might happen as Yugoslav forces began to return to the last section, Sector B, of the buffer-zone around Kosovo on Thursday.

There had been speculation in Skopje that the NLA would announce their withdrawal - to allow the political process a chance to win more rights for ethnic Albanians in Macedonia peacefully.

But early on Thursday, the Macedonian army launched a new assault on the rebel-held villages, vowing to drive the fighters out.

Once again the Balkans are teetering on a knife-edge, between peace and war.

Key stories

Macedonia danger




See also:

23 May 01 | Europe
Macedonia fights on two fronts
29 Nov 00 | Europe
Presevo's uneasy peace
16 Feb 01 | Europe
Serbs die in Kosovo bus blast
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