A War Waiting to Happen

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A mud-spattered Renault Le Car sputters to a halt on a dirt road overlooking Serbia's snow-covered Presevo valley. Out clamber three men dressed in mismatched combat fatigues, toting handheld radios and wearing pistols on their hips. The apparent leader steps abruptly forward and says, "Welcome to Kosovo Part II."

These three people represent the leadership of Yugoslavia's newest insurgency, a collection of 30 to 70 young men claiming to represent the approximately 70,000 ethnic Albanians still living in southern Serbia under the oppressive regime of President Slobodan Milosevic. They call themselves the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB), named after three of the region's most prominent towns all located within 15 km of the Kosovo border. Since January, the group has staged a series of ambushes on Serbian police and other targets throughout the region, provoking heavyhanded Serb reprisals. At least four Serbs and six Albanians have been killed. Just last week, in separate ambushes, a Serb policeman and an Albanian rebel were killed and an Irish field worker shot in the legs when his U.N. vehicle was mistaken for a Serbian police wagon. The UCPMB's sudden emergence and the tit-for-tat killings echo the maneuvers three years ago of another rebel group, the Kosovo Liberation Army. Is Presevo another Kosovo waiting to happen?

Overshadowed until recently by clashes in the divided northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica, the rumblings in southern Serbia are raising alarms. When Kosovo's top NATO commander briefs the U.N. Security Council this week in New York, the Presevo valley will top the agenda, according to one official. A sudden flood of refugees into neighboring Macedonia--or a massacre like those that triggered the war in Kosovo--would force U.S. and other NATO troops to consider direct intervention in Serbia proper. "The stakes are enormous," says one senior diplomat. Unlike the ethnically polarized city of Mitrovica, which is inside Kosovo, "We are dealing with real borders here. The rebels have got to be stopped now ... before a massacre unfolds."

The population of the region is predominantly ethnic Albanian. But like Kosovo before last year's NATO bombing, its power structure is dominated by Serb officials and by the notorious state police. It was on Jan. 27, at the funeral of two woodcutters killed by police, that nine members of the UCPMB first emerged to declare their intention to resist "the Serb oppressors." "We have no other option than to protect ourselves," the 35-year-old former car mechanic who founded the UCPMB told Time. "We do not want to start a war--just prevent Milosevic from repeating the slaughters of Kosovo."

But Belgrade's plans remain unclear, though NATO intelligence has reported a buildup of police and army recruitment along the Kosovo border. Officially, the Serbian government calls the UCPMB a group of U.S.-backed Albanian "terrorists" plotting to destabilize the regime. Minister without portfolio Djura Lazic told Belgrade's official news agency that the attacks were ultimately aimed at justifying "NATO's occupation of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja."

The UCPMB is made up entirely of former k.l.a. foot soldiers who went west to Kosovo to fight against Serb forces. They model themselves on the k.l.a. right down to their emblem: a double-headed eagle insignia on a red and black shoulder patch. And they are clearly hoping for Kosovo Albanian, and eventually NATO, support. "We expect [Kosovo Albanians] to join us in our struggle," says the UCPMB leader. So far, no official cross-border relationship exists. But informal ties are common among Albanians throughout the region, and Shaban Shala, a senior commander of the Kosovo Protection Corps, the officially sanctioned civil force made up of ex-k.l.a. fighters, concedes that he cannot rule out the participation of "every ex-k.l.a. member or extremist." He adds that the Geneva-based Homeland Calling Fund, which raised millions for the k.l.a. from Albanians living abroad, has been reactivated for the UCPMB.

NATO leaders have publicly warned Milosevic to show restraint and have privately urged ethnic Albanian leaders in Pristina to use their influence to stop the insurgency. Sami Lushtaku, one of Kosovo's top Albanian commanders, sat down with NATO supreme commander General Wesley Clark last month. "He looked me straight in the eyes and said, 'Back off. Control your people,'" says Lushtaku. The nightmare scenario for NATO is a massacre by Serb police. A full-fledged atrocity, and the attendant publicity, would be difficult for NATO troops to ignore. U.S. commanders have warned UCPMB leaders not to stray into Kosovo, and last week advanced their front lines to within 200 meters of the Serbian border to try to prevent the rebels from seeking refuge along NATO's perimeter.

Meanwhile, Albanians still in southern Serbia say that nighttime searches and harassment by police are intensifying. Between 10,000 and 20,000 residents have already fled, mostly to Macedonia and Kosovo. "They are preparing for war," says one former resident.

Back in the Presevo valley, the leader of the new rebel movement lights a Dunhill cigarette and gestures up toward the hills. "We've dug trenches and set up observation points monitoring [police] movements," he says, eager to demonstrate the seriousness of his intentions. Unfortunately, in this part of the world, the chances are good that he means business.