Balkans back on the warpath

Kosovo could provide the spark that ignites a second conflict, reports Andrew Gumbel
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IT WAS a spectacle filled with haunting memories of an all too recent past. As Serb paramilitary police forces stormed through villages in the Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo last week and left the mutilated bodies of the villagers outside their destroyed homes, it was impossible not to be reminded of the behaviour of Serb ethnic cleansing gangs who terrorised Croatia and Bosnia at the start of the Yugoslav wars of secession.

Yesterday, smoke rose over the destroyed compound of Adem Jasari, said to be a leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, in the village of Prekaz. Dozens of bodies, including that of Jasari, lay in the courtyard, and the walls bore the marks of two days of shelling. Survivors from Prekaz and the neighbouring village of Lausha, still hiding in the woods for fear of the Serbs, recounted how families were ordered out of their homes with their hands up; the women and children were generally allowed to go while the men were summarily executed.

The Serbian authorities say they are flushing out the most dangerous elements of a terrorist organisation, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which over the past year has taken responsibility for a string of attacks on Serbian policemen and Albanian "traitors". But the overwhelming use of force suggests a more sinister agenda. For several days, the Albanians have heard that the same Serbian gangs who raped and murdered their way through eastern Slavonia and Bosnia in the early 1990s are heading for Kosovo.

A Serbian gangster known as Pjevac, the Rooster, was reported to have been released from jail in Brcko in northern Bosnia, and spotted in the Kosovo town of Mitrovica with a group of the notorious paramilitary Tigers. Another much-feared figure, Frenki Sematovic, vanished from his training camp in the northern province of Vojvodina along with 700 proteges - a report confirmed by a Western official who visited the site - and was said to be on his way to teach the Albanians a lesson they wouldn't forget.

So, is another Serb-inspired Balkan war in the offing? "It certainly looks that way," was the grim assessment of Veton Suroj, editor of Kosovo's moderate Albanian-language daily Koha Ditore. "It is hard to see what can stop a war now."

The elements for a major conflict are in place: an Albanian community that for years has been demanding secession in the face of a massive, and at times brutal, Serbian police presence; a gradual winnowing of patience with moderate leaders preaching non-violence; and, in the past year, the emergence of an armed Albanian militia determined to achieve its goals through violence.

It is not clear how powerful or organised the KLA is. It may, as the Serbian chief justice in Pristina said recently, be a gang of armed criminals with little political co-ordination. But as relations with the province's Serb rulers have deteriorated to overt hostility, more Albanians - in and out of Kosovo - have begun to believe in the KLA as a means to overthrow the police state imposed by the Serbs.

Support for the Kosovo cause would most likely come from Albanians in western Macedonia and in Albania. They, along with ethnic Albanians living in western Europe, could provide money and smuggling routes for weapons. If the conflict got out of control, fighting men could pour over national boundaries.

But this is a long way off. For now, Serbian operations have been restricted to the rural Drenica area, west of the capital, Pristina. Most Kosovo Albanians are against armed struggle, partly because they know that the balance of forces is tipped heavily in the Serbs' favour.

That does not preclude the possibility of a protracted dirty war in which the Albanians launch modest guerrilla raids on Serb targets in the hope of winning international sympathy when the brutal counter-attack comes. The Serbs, in return, might welcome a pretext for their "anti- terrorist" raids.

A six-nation foreign ministers' meeting on Kosovo in London tomorrow, hopes to get the two sides talking about an autonomy package for the Albanians. But that, too, seems distant. "We have to move them back on a path to dialogue," said one Western diplomat. "Frankly, we have no idea how to achieve that."

This seems more realistic than the analysis of American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who warned in Rome yesterday that the US was "not going to stand by and watch" the Serbian authorities create bloodshed in Kosovo. She "did not rule out" any options to end the violence.