It's Spring, and Trouble Brews Again in Kosovo

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Nine months into their Kosovo peacekeeping mission, U.S. troops appear no closer to going home than when they first arrived. Worse still, they may be more likely than ever to find themselves in harm's way as the onset of springtime ushers in the Balkans' traditional fighting season. U.S. and NATO military officials, as well as the Russian government, expressed alarm Tuesday at the deteriorating security situation in the Presevo Valley, a predominantly ethnic-Albanian enclave inside Serbia where a guerrilla offshoot of the Kosovo Liberation Army has started attacking local police. The UCPMB militia, an acronym referring to the Presevo Valley and two local towns, is believed to be led by former officers of the officially disbanded KLA and is essentially following the organization's strategy. In 1996, the KLA began hit-and-run attacks on Yugoslav police and municipal authorities that provoked brutal and indiscriminate Serb crackdowns. Although Washington initially characterized the KLA strikes as terrorist actions, Serb human rights abuses eventually led to NATO's intervening on behalf of the ethnic-Albanian community in last year's war.

Provoking the Serb authorities in Presevo may be a sound game plan for a guerrilla group looking to unite the enclave with neighboring Kosovo, but this time NATO says it won't play. U.S. troops have sealed the Kosovo-Presevo border, and Washington sent State Department spokesman James Rubin to Kosovo to warn its ethnic-Albanian leadership to do more to stop violence inside Kosovo and to avoid the temptation to get involved in Presevo, although he reported little by way of progress at the conclusion of his visit on Tuesday. After all, while NATO favors a multiethnic Kosovo that has autonomy but not full independence from Yugoslavia, those who made up the KLA have never renounced their goal of an independent, ethnically homogeneous Kosovo in a federation with Albania. The Presevo militants believe NATO will have no choice but to intervene if the Serbs crack down, but they may be forgetting that this is a U.S. election year. With Republican legislators already challenging Washington's commitment to an open-ended peacekeeping mission, a new outbreak of hostilities in the region may simply increase NATO's resolve not to reprise the role of sheriff.