Don't stir up trouble, US warns Albanians

Nato fears grow over attempts to provoke Serbs

Richard Norton-Taylor

Wednesday March 15, 2000

The US yesterday warned ethnic Albanians against provoking a conflict in Serbia's Presevo valley, amid growing concerns within Nato about attempts by hardliners to extend the conflict in the region.

James Rubin, the American assistant secretary of state, said he recognised that the treatment of Albanians in the area - close to Kosovo's eastern boundary- was a serious problem. But he warned that the hardliners should not be under any illusion about the US attitude.

"Kosovo is one thing and Presevo is a different thing," he said, during a visit to the US army base at Camp Monteith in eastern Kosovo.

An armed group in the Presevo valley has vowed to defend the region's Albanian majority from alleged brutality by Serb security forces. Western governments and Nato commanders believe the group wants to provoke a Serbian backlash in the hope that Nato will intervene to help them.

More troops from the Nato-led international peacekeeping force, K-For, have recently been sent to the Kosovo border area following reports that armed Albanians were crossing into the Presevo valley. The valley is home to an estimated 70,000 ethnic Albanians, about 10% of whom have fled to Kosovo in recent months.

Mr Rubin was ending a three-day visit to Kosovo during which ethnic Albanian leaders were told they were not doing enough to stop ethnically motivated violence or crimes.

Geoffrey Hoon, the British defence secretary, yesterday voiced his concerns about recent events. He said: "On the Albanian side we see genuine refugees who simply want to return to their old homes. But we also see hardline agitators whose agenda, like Milosevic's, is ethnic purity."

Mr Hoon said K-For peacekeepers were mounting "what looks increasingly like an internal security operation rather than peacekeeping".

Nato commanders and member governments now concede that K-For troops will be in Kosovo for at least four more years.

Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, said British judges and prosecutors would start work in Kosovo next month to help support the UN civil administration. British officials were also being sent to head the UN customs service and the trade and industry section of the province's interim administration.

Igor Ivanov, the Russian foreign minister, meanwhile, urged the major industrialised nations to help prevent tensions within Kosovo from spilling over into southern Serbia. He expressed Moscow's concern that "the very critical situation" in southern Serbia could ignite a new war.

French defence ministry officials met yesterday to discuss accusations by Amnesty International that their troops in Kosovo were guilty of human rights abuses, officials said.

Amnesty has called for an independent inquiry into the fatal shooting of an ethnic Albanian man in Mitrovice by the K-For force, which, in the divided city, is made up mostly of French troops.

A total of 49 people are said to have been detained by French troops after an outbreak of violence. They were reportedly kept in inhumane conditions and denied access to lawyers.

Original article