Violence erupts on Serbia's eastern border

"It's exactly like Kosovo before the war' as ethnic Albanians flee killings and harassment by Yugoslav security police"


Monday, March 06, 2000

Podgragje, Yugoslavia -- Frightened ethnic-Albanian refugees crossed the border into Kosovo yesterday after a weekend flareup of violence near Serbia's volatile eastern border with its troubled province.

The area has become Yugoslavia's latest hot spot as ethnic Albanians in Serbia's tense border region clash with Serb security police.

That tension was evident yesterday as ethnic Albanians came through a military checkpoint at Podgragje, a muddy hamlet in a picturesque river valley a few kilometres from the heavily guarded border between Kosovo and Serbia proper.

One man said he and his family had walked all the way from Presevo about 25 kilometres to the south, climbing through the snow-covered mountains to avoid Serbian checkpoints. His wife carried their 14-month-old baby all the way, and they left with only the clothes on their backs, he said.

"You can't even look at a Serb [in Presevo] or he will beat you," said the man, who said he was too worried to give more than his first name, Maliq. "It's exactly like Kosovo before the war."

The international military force in Kosovo, KFOR, said about 70 people fled the border town of Dobrosin after gunfire broke out near there on Saturday. Refugees said the town, once home to 1,200 people, was now empty except for a handful of old men.

The border violence is significant because the area nearby could play a part in the jockeying over the eventual borders of Kosovo if it becomes an independent country or strongly autonomous state.

Some Kosovo Albanian nationalists refer to the area of Serbia, on the other side of the provincial border, as "eastern Kosovo," pointing out that the 75,000 ethnic Albanians who live there constitute a majority and should be able to join with their ethnic brothers in Kosovo.

Ninety per cent of the population of the area's biggest town, Presevo, is ethnic Albanian.

An ethnic-Albanian guerrilla group has appeared in the area recently, bearing the unwieldy name of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, referring to the three counties of the region. The shadowy group wears uniforms similar to those of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the separatist group that fought Serb forces in Kosovo before and during last year's North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.

Serbia, which has effectively lost the province of Kosovo as a result of the NATO intervention, would obviously oppose any attempt to seize the border region.

"The Presevo area could be real trouble," said a Western diplomat in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. "The last thing we want is a punch-up with the Serbs."

KFOR leaders have said they are watching the border area closely and will not allow ethnic-Albanian extremists to operate there. American KFOR troops were carefully checking documents at border checkpoints yesterday, and their dug-in tanks had their gun barrels facing toward Serbia.

The eastern border area has been tense for months, but the violence has escalated since the beginning of the year.

In mid-January, Belgrade sent in the feared Interior Ministry police after three Serbs were killed in a town near the border. Then, on Jan 26, two brothers -- Isa and Shaip Saqipi, both in their 30s -- were killed in Dobrasin while out chopping wood. Ethnic Albanians blamed the Serb police.

An uncle of the two, Bejxhet Saqipi, said yesterday that a group of six to eight police had beaten his nephews and then shot them dead and mutilated their corpses.

"People are afraid," he said. "They want KFOR to help."

The violence in the area has an uncanny similarity to the killings and harassment of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo before the start of last spring's war, and the overburdened cars and tractors crossing the border yesterday had a familiar look.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees says that 6,000 ethnic Albanians have crossed into Kosovo from the adjacent area since June. Rosim Hojolari, an official with the Catholic relief agency Caritas, in Gjinlane, 50 kilometres southeast of Pristina, said he expects 20,000 more to arrive soon because of the border-area trouble.

"The Serbs are trying to clean out the Albanians, just like they did in Kosovo," he said.

But Tanjung, the official Yugoslav news agency, said the reports of trouble in the area were a new media lie.

At the same time, it quoted local administrator Stojance Arsic as blaming a terrorist front for 14 bombings and other incidents since November. The aim, he was quoted as saying, was to create a crisis and create the conditions for KFOR to intervene.

KLA leader Hashim Thaci, meanwhile, accused Serbia of pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide against the ethnic-Albanian population near the border.

Original article