Two years after the beginning of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia,
the Balkans are careening toward the brink of yet another war. But
with Slobodan Milosevic gone from power, it is not Belgrade that
is the instigator this time.
Armed ethnic Albanians--once the darlings of the West--are dramatically
expanding their violent campaign for a greater Kosovo beyond the
borders of Yugoslavia and into Macedonia. What two years ago was
portrayed as a fight to liberate the Kosovo Albanians from Serb
repression is evolving into a war against Slavic governments in
The Albanian rebels' regular attacks on Yugoslavian security forces
and Serb villages,
which have forced some 180,000 Serbs from Kosovo, received scant media
attention and only mild concern from the international community,
as they were categorized as part of the ongoing conflict between Serbs
and Albanians. It was only when Macedonia recently became engulfed
in battles with the Albanian militants that the world began to take
A man tries to save the cows
police set his barn on fire.
The northern town of Tetovo has been the latest flashpoint, with
Macedonian security forces pounding positions of the so-called National
Liberation Army (whose Albanian acronym UCK is identical to that
of the KLA). In late March, after securing varying degrees of support
from Western governments and strong backing from Russia, Macedonia
launched an offensive against the militants, retaking villages held
by the UCK. The offensive was bolstered by weapons shipments from
neighboring Bulgaria and four Mi-24 attack helicopters from Ukraine.
Yugoslavia's defense forces have been eager to carry out this type
of action in southern Serbia, with officials saying it would take
a maximum of two days to complete (see "War
Without End," March 19). But both NATO and the new authorities
in Belgrade have been reluctant to authorize such an offensive,
given the recent history. Recently, however, the armed Albanians
operating in Serbia repeatedly have broken a fragile NATO-brokered
ceasefire. In addition to regular attacks on army and police positions,
the Albanian militants have taken four Serbian civilians hostage
along with two Yugoslav Army soldiers. This is quickly making the
argument for restraint from Yugoslavia's forces untenable.
Though the publicly stated aim of the armed Albanians in both Serbia
and Macedonia is to gain greater rights for Albanian people, behind
the scenes the rhetoric is more transparent. At an armed Albanian
camp near the Yugoslavia-Macedonia border, commanders say they are
fighting against "Slavic terror" and intend to annex Albanian-populated
areas of both countries and unite them with Kosovo. At the base
of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB)
in the Serbian village of Lucane, an Albanian commander who identifies
himself as Ardian says that if Yugoslavian forces attempt to retake
the village, "We won't be awaiting them with flowers." Another young
fighter adds bluntly: "We'll die here before we let them back."
Such a battle may not be far off. NATO has given the Yugoslavian
army the go-ahead to further deploy its forces in the NATO-imposed
buffer zone separating Kosovo from Serbia. The zone--which the army
had been banned from entering since the end of the NATO bombing--includes
the main strongholds of the UCPMB militants. Announcing the deployment,
NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson stood beside U.S. Secretary
of State Colin Powell and said, "It is unacceptable for the Ground
Safety Zone to be used as some kind of safe-haven for extremists."
The move outraged Albanians in the area. Riza Halimi, the head
of the Party for Democratic Action--the largest Albanian political
party in the Presevo Valley--says NATO should be widening the zone
instead of reducing it. "We cannot see this deployment as anything
other than open pressure on the Albanian population in this region,"
Halimi says. "There is now a real danger for a further ethnic cleansing
which will escalate the already difficult situation."
As Yugoslavian army personnel carriers zoomed past the predominantly
ethnic Albanian village of Trnava along the Macedonian border, villagers
gathered at a corner store. "NATO made a mistake and we are going
to suffer because of that," says Baki Beqiri, an unemployed factory
worker. "That army was in Kosovo and they massacred our people."
Despite the ire it is evoking from the Albanian community, the
rhetoric emanating from NATO headquarters in Brussels is that of
support for both Yugoslavia and Macedonia. As Robertson said recently,
"NATO will not permit a changing of borders in the Balkans."
But the reality remains that the forces attacking both countries
are supplied from Kosovo, which is under a joint U.N./NATO administration.
Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski recently blasted the
United States and Germany--whose troops patrol the areas of Kosovo
bordering northern Macedonia--for failing to halt the "terrorist"
attacks against his country. "You can't persuade anyone in Macedonia
today that the governments of the United States and Germany do not
know who the terrorist leaders are and what they want," he said.
"They could stop them."
Yugoslavian President Vojislav Kostunica echoed those sentiments
in Belgrade. He accused the NATO-led forces in Kosovo of having
"stimulated terrorism" instead of fighting it. "I ask once again:
Is NATO a military or a humanitarian organization? What is the reason
for its presence there?" Kostunica described the return of the Yugoslavian
forces to the buffer zone as "one more proof of how inefficient
in all these years KFOR has been."
Jeremy Scahill is a journalist based in Belgrade. He
reports frequently for Pacifica