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Monday, March 2, 1998 Published at 11:33 GMT

World: Analysis

Kosovo: A new Yugoslav crisis?

The recent trouble between ethnic Albanians and Serb police in the Serbian province of Kosovo has been building for some time. Some separatist leaders have called on the Kosovo Albanians to take up arms against the Belgrade authorities. BBC analyst Edmund Butler reports.

The weekend violence, which left at least 20 people dead, appears to have erupted after a paramilitary separatist group, known as the Kosovo Liberation Army or KLA, ambushed a police convoy. Four policemen are said to have died in that incident, and it was followed by a massive crackdown by the security forces around the town of Granica, a suspected KLA stronghold.

Past unrest in Kosovo in 1989 prompted the then Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, to impose direct rule from Belgrade. Since then there has been widespread passive resistance to the Serb-dominated authority, resistance that has turned more violent in recent months.

Paul Wood, the BBC's former correspondent in the region: "The new element is the Kosovo Liberation Army or KLA. This has become active in the last 12 months or so and we've seen more armed incidents in the last year than we've seen in the preceding five altogether.

"The KLA was at first dismissed by ethnic Albanian politicians as an invention of the Serb security services designed to discredit them. Nobody now accepts that view. Everyone believes they are real. Indeed a couple of weeks ago I spoke to some of their representatives in Switzerland. And they told me that their plan now was to escalate the conflict. That seems to be exactly what they are doing."

Western security intelligence is said to estimate the KLA's membership at little more than 200. However they do appear to enjoy increasing local support, as those who prefer secession by peaceful means make little progress with the Belgrade authorities. The KLA are also much better armed following the unrest in Albania last year when weapons depots were raided.

It's clear that reports of some 15 civilians dead in this weekend's violence will prompt renewed concern from the international community and human rights groups, which have complained of systematic human rights abuses by the authorities in Kosovo. But according to Dejan Anastasievic of the Belgrade newspaper, Vreme, the leadership in Belgrade appears to have decided that it's time to clamp down on those they see as terrorists.

"Now the events in Granica are getting the highest possible profile. President Milosevic himself has sent his condolences to the families of the policemen who were killed. And the ruling Socialist party and its allied parties have all issued statements condemning the so-called terrorism in Kosovo and demanding harsh measures by the state.

"There will definitely be an outcry considering there were 15 people dead over the weekend. However, we have four dead policemen and the US special representative to the former Yugoslavia, Robert Gelbard, last week in Belgrade very clearly denounced terrorism. I'm afraid Mr Milosevic has assumed this statement gave him a green light to do whatever he wants in Kosovo."

The United States has expressed concern and has called for calm in the region. President Milosevic, meanwhile, has warned Western governments not to get involved in something he regards as an internal Yugoslav matter. But others, like Isa Zymberi of the separatist party, The Democratic League for Kosovo, say it's time the people of the region were given a chance to determine their own future. He says now could be the West's last chance to offer meaningful mediation before the situation spirals out of control.

"I understand that the international community insists first of all on the non-violability of borders. But in our case I think self-determination should be given priority. If Belgrade continues to be blind enough to refuse to agree to sit down and talk, incidents like this weekend's will occur more often and this will lead to more bloodshed."

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