On the Border of Crisis

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There is a jarring sense of d&eacutej vu to the ethnic Albanian insurgency now under way in southern Serbia. A rebel attack on police targets, Serb indignation, the sudden flow of refugees. Point by point, the conflict seems to echo earlier exchanges that, under Slobodan Milosevic, triggered earlier wars. It is almost as if the changes that have swept the region over the past few months had never happened. Almost. At a Serb police checkpoint near the town of Bujanovac, a special-police lieutenant ducked out of the line of rebel fire behind a makeshift barricade of plaster lawn ornaments. "We lobbed three mortar shells toward the rebels," he complained, "and American soldiers stationed across the border called immediately and told us to stop."

What's that? Serb forces taking orders from Americans? Serb forces, some of them accused of atrocities in Kosovo, showing restraint because NATO asked? The difference between Serbia now and just two years ago is this: Serb military reprisals, once almost a given, are suddenly at least for now in abeyance. "We have decided to use the language of diplomacy and negotiations and not the language of force," Deputy Premier Nebojsa Covic said in Bujanovac after announcing that Serbia would stop insisting that NATO clamp down on rebel incursions or risk Serb military action.

Still, Serbs are only half the equation. Albanian rebels, armed and backed by underground organizations in Kosovo and probably Macedonia, continue the fight. The cease-fire currently in effect is fragile, and NATO soldiers, notably Americans stationed just across the border in Kosovo, risk getting caught in the crossfire. "We are very concerned," said U.S. General Dennis Hardy late last week: "We are doing everything possible to contain the situation and not jeopardize the gains achieved on both the Yugoslav level and in Kosovo."

The Balkans' newest crisis flared Nov. 21 with an attack on several police outposts in southern Serbia that left four officers dead. Calling itself the Liberation Army for Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB), the group vows to liberate the Presevo valley from what it calls oppressive Serb rule. Yugoslavia's new President, Vojislav Kostunica, may be no Milosevic, but he responded swiftly to the attack, blaming NATO for failing to prevent Albanian incursions. He ordered tanks and artillery to the edge of the so-called buffer zone, the 5-km-wide demilitarized strip separating Kosovo from Serbia proper. Said Yugoslavia's army chief, General Nebojsa Pavkovic: "If there isn't good will in the international community to solve the problem peacefully, Yugoslavia will purge all Albanian terrorist forces from the entire buffer zone."

Not long ago, such rhetoric would have been dismissed. But last week NATO's top military commanders and even the U.N. Security Council snapped to attention. Eager to back the new Yugoslav President, the council expressed "strong indignation" at the rebel action. NATO proclaimed a six-point plan designed to meet Belgrade's demands, including better aerial surveillance of the border and an information campaign to "highlight the danger of extremism in the Presevo valley." Western officials, meantime, unanimously condemned the UCPMB. Hardy said the U.S. had "clear proof" the Albanian group was behind the attacks. He added: "The Serbian police have been pretty patient in the affair."

While its membership is small perhaps as few as 200 no one is writing off the Albanian rebels. Sweeps by U.S. and other troops in the past two weeks in Kosovo netted more than a dozen Albanians linked to the UCPMB, along with caches of rocket-propelled grenade launchers, rifles, a mortar system and 8,250 rounds of ammunition. NATO officials note that in order to mediate between the two sides they have to maintain the appearance of neutrality. Confronting rebels, moreover, would raise the risk of reprisals against NATO troops. "We don't want to go for the heavy-handed approach without exhausting all other options," said Hardy.

Meanwhile, the rebels' self-proclaimed reason for being Serb oppression appears to be lessening. "There is a more correct attitude among the police than what we have seen all year," said Shaip Kamberi, head of an Albanian human rights group in Bujanovac. Conceded a policeman in the town, using the derogatory term for Albanians: "We're not allowed to touch the Shiptars. Orders are orders."

For Kostunica, in fact, the standoff has proved something of a boon. His quick response and the West's willing reply played well among ordinary Serbs. That could prove crucial in this month's parliamentary elections, in which the new President's party must consolidate its lead over a more formidable opponent than the UCPMB: the remnants of Slobodan Milosevic's regime.

Reported by Dejan Anastasijevic/Bujanovac and Anthee Carassava/Athens