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Albanians, U.S. May Face Off in Kosovo

State Department spokesman James Rubin tours Djakovica on Monday. (AFP)

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Printer-Friendly Version By Roberto Suro Washington Post Staff Writer Wednesday, March 15, 2000; Page A01

A senior Pentagon official warned yesterday that U.S. troops in Kosovo this spring may have to fight their former allies, ethnic Albanian guerrillas who are rearming themselves and threatening cross-border attacks against Serbia.

"This has got to cease and desist, and if not, ultimately it is going to lead to confrontation between the Albanians and KFOR," said the official, referring to the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, which has dwindled to about 37,000 troops.

The stern warning came as State Department envoy James P. Rubin ended three days of talks in which he urged ethnic Albanian leaders to halt a rising tide of violence against Serbs, but apparently failed to win any concessions.

Worries that Kosovo might explode this spring were sounded yesterday in European capitals as well. "Today, we put the extremists on both sides on notice: We will not allow them to destroy the process of restoring stability and bringing reconciliation," said British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.

With increasing frequency in recent weeks, ethnic Albanian fighters have raked Serbian villages and homesteads with gunfire and have assaulted Serbs on the way to work or to marketplaces in an apparent effort to drive the remaining Serbs out of Kosovo. This marks a stark reversal of the situation a year ago, when Serbian forces conducted a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Kosovo Albanians, driving more than 850,000 out of the province.

Responding to the ethnic Albanians' plight, NATO launched a bombing campaign on March 24 that lasted 78 days, eventually obliging Serbian forces to withdraw and allow about 50,000 NATO peacekeepers to move into Kosovo. While the province technically remains part of Serbia and the Serb-dominated Yugoslav federation, the United Nations has promised to help Kosovo build an autonomous judicial and administrative system. That has fueled hopes of independence among many ethnic Albanians, and U.S. officials now worry that those hopes are translating into an escalation of anti-Serb violence.

The senior military official who warned of possible combat between NATO and ethnic Albanians had recently returned from meetings with U.S. commanders in Kosovo. He said the Pentagon is particularly concerned about Kosovo Albanian guerrillas marshaling in a no-man's land in southeastern Serbia, just outside the U.S.-patrolled sector of Kosovo. The 5,300 U.S. troops in Kosovo have a "pretty slim" ability to police the 115 miles of border assigned to them, the official said.

In recent weeks, ethnic Albanian militants near the Serbian town of Presevo have skirmished with Serbian police. In response, the Yugoslav army has reinforced its presence in the region, and U.S. military leaders are increasingly worried about all-out violence on their doorstep.

More than 500 well-armed ethnic Albanians are active in the rugged hills of the no-man's land around Presevo, and their numbers are growing rapidly thanks to a well-financed recruiting campaign throughout Kosovo, U.S. military officials said. The guerrillas include elements of the now-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, which conducted attacks on Serbian police in 1998 and 1999.

U.S. commanders in Kosovo are now assessing whether more troops will be needed to prevent a resumption of large-scale conflict between the ethnic Albanians and the Serbs, Pentagon officials said.

Pessimism over the situation in Kosovo is not universally shared within the Clinton administration. On a visit to Eastern Europe last week, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, the chief architect of the U.S.-led intervention on behalf of the Kosovo Albanians, insisted that conditions are improving in Kosovo.

"After all that has happened, we do not expect the rival communities in Kosovo to immediately join hands and start singing folk songs," Albright said in Prague. Nonetheless, she added, "those in the ethnic Albanian community who perpetrate crimes against Serbs and other minorities deserve strong condemnation and are doing a profound disservice to the aspirations of their people."

Last weekend, Albright dispatched Rubin, her spokesman and trusted aide, to seek cooperation from ethnic Albanian leaders in restraining the newly resurgent guerrilla forces. He reminded the Kosovo Albanians that the United States had come to their rescue after Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic launched a scorched-earth campaign against them. But as his visit ended yesterday, he had made no breakthroughs.

"First, there has to be a decision to recognize that there is a problem," Rubin said, citing his hope that ethnic Albanians will realize that they risk alienating their American defenders if they continue to conduct revenge attacks against Serbs in Kosovo and to launch raids into Serbia.

"Over time, as [ethnic Albanians] examine their choices here, they'll realize that their best friends are troubled," Rubin said at a U.S. Army base in the eastern Kosovo city of Gnjilane, according to the Associated Press.

U.S. officials remain hopeful that a majority of Kosovo Albanians will balk at the prospect of renewed violence, even if they desire independence. While the former fighters of the KLA were widely viewed as heroes at the end of last year's war, their popularity has since declined. A poll conducted for NATO last month by the Gallup organization found that less than 13 percent of the populace intends to vote for a political party formed by ex-KLA members, while roughly 45 percent plans to vote for the party of Ibrahim Rugova, a pacifist leader despised by the guerrilla army.

) 2000 The Washington Post Company

-- suzy (, March 15, 2000

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