Albanian Insurgents Keep NATO Forces Busy

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KFOR soldiers patrol near the Kosovo-Macedonia border

The fortunes of "Greater Serbia" went the way of Slobodan Milosevic; now the imperial vision menacing the fragile Balkans is "Greater Albania." Clashes between Albanian nationalist guerrillas and U.S.-trained Macedonian army units intensified Friday, despite the direct intervention by U.S. troops Thursday to drive the guerrillas out of their stronghold in the Macedonian village of Tanusevci. The guerrillas are remnants of the Kosovo Liberation Army who have taken their fight across the borders both into southern Serbia, where their objective is to annex the Presevo Valley, and into Macedonia, where they're attempting to seize control over predominantly ethnic-Albanian areas.

Where NATO had been happy to fight alongside the KLA against the Yugoslav army in Kosovo, the alliance is now confronting those former KLA elements who are bent on destabilizing Serbia and Macedonia. Not only that, NATO has actually enlisted the help of the same Yugoslav army against which it fought in Kosovo. To the consternation of Kosovo's Albanian leaders, NATO this week asked Belgrade to send troops into the buffer zone inside Serbia established as part of the cease-fire agreement that ended the war in Kosovo. The symbolic significance of that decision cannot be understated: It's a clear a message to the region's Albanian nationalists that NATO plans to respond aggressively to any further attempts to redraw Balkan borders — and that the Western alliance is prepared to underscore its position by force. U.S. troops wounded a number of Albanian guerrillas in firefights around Tanusevci earlier this week.

NATO's new assertiveness, of course, considerably raises the danger facing Western soldiers serving in the KFOR peacekeeping mission. Armed Albanian nationalists have shown increasing assertiveness both inside Kosovo as well as in Macedonia and the Presevo Valley since the beginning of this year, sensing that the demise of Milosevic and their continued ethnic cleansing of the territory's remaining Serbs has cooled Western sympathy with their demand for formal independence for Kosovo — which the KLA saw as the first step to its incorporation into a "Greater Albania."

NATO may have remained largely passive in the face of attacks on Kosovo's Serbs and even the minor insurgency in Presevo, but by taking their campaign to Macedonia, the nationalist guerrillas may have crossed a NATO red line. Macedonia was the only former Yugoslav republic to break away without bloodshed in the early 1990s, and Western observers have long been concerned that the conflicts in the surrounding republics could spark a disastrous showdown between Macedonia's 30 percent Albanian population and the Slavic majority — even more so since the Kosovo war increased tensions between the two communities. Still, Macedonia is not Kosovo: Albanians participate fully in political life and in the current government, and the insurgency inside Macedonia by Albanians who fought in Kosovo has infuriated most of that territory's Albanian leaders. Still, NATO is taking strong preemptive action precisely to head off the potential for a new Balkan war.

NATO members, particularly the United States, had hoped by now to be able to start reducing its troop commitments in the Balkans. But the first thaws of spring have once again ushered in the traditional Balkan fighting season, and there's plenty of work, once again, for peacekeepers.