War in the Balkans: Analysis: Serb incursion is a sharp taste of how war could engulf region

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THE YUGOSLAV army's incursion into Albania yesterday offers an alarming, albeit brief, taste of how the Kosovo war could quickly engulf neighbouring countries - and bring Serb ground forces into the direct proximity of an ever- increasing number of Nato troops. But it was neither surprising nor, given the way this war is developing, especially outrageous.

The deeper fear, that the raid could presage a wider Serb invasion of Albania, for the moment seems unfounded. After three weeks of aerial pounding, the Serb army almost certainly has neither the fuel nor the supplies for such an exercise. To invade, moreover, would bring its tanks and artillery out into the open, exposing it at last to attack by frustrated Nato pilots. But episodes like that of yesterday are almost certain to recur.

Ever since its armed insurgency first became a factor in the crisis some 14 months ago, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) has enjoyed bases and logistic support across the rugged frontier of Northern Albania. Even a year ago, Serb forces were carrying out 'hot pursuit' cross-border raids to strike at these strongholds and disrupt supply lines.

For their part, the KLA was drawing on the rich source of light weapons constituted by stocks plundered when the central Albanian state self- destructed amid the chaos following the colossal financial scandal of 1997, which cut the country's wealth in half.

But these weapons, ideal for the highly mobile guerrilla war waged by the KLA, were no match for the artillery and armour of the Yugoslav army. So it seems to have proved in the five days' fighting culminating in yesterday's operation, which saw the brief capture and partial burning of a village half a mile into Albania, and - for the first time - the involvement of Albanian army units as well as border police. In the past, the Albanian army proper has stayed a few miles inland from the border, precisely to avoid "provocations" which could escalate into a full-scale confrontation with the vastly superior Serb forces. This time the scale of the incursion, and the threat to the country's territorial integrity plainly left them no choice.

But there is precious little that Albania on its own can do about it. Even before the virtual collapse of its state - and with it the armed forces - two years ago, the country was the poorest in Europe, with a per capita GDP of under $4,000 (pounds 2,500). Since then a fragile stability has been restored under the Prime Minister, Pandeli Majko. But tribal factors mean the government's writ barely runs to the north of the country; and even if it did, the army's strength is reckoned to be 10,000 at best, compared with the estimated 40,000-strong Yugoslav army and Serb security forces in and around Kosovo. If Tirana wants military protection, it will have to look to Nato for it - indeed that is precisely what is happening.

After last weekend's announcement that Albania's entire military infrastructure, such as it is, is being placed under the control of the alliance, the country is in reality little more than a Nato protectorate. The official, and for the time being genuine, reason is only a Western takeover on this scale can tackle the humanitarian crisis posed by the 300,000 or more Kosovo refugees on its territory. But the upshot is that Albania is in a state of undeclared war with Belgrade. What is more, President Milosevic knows that any Nato ground invasion of Kosovo would now come from Albania rather than Macedonia. For that reason, analysts reckon, he may be seeking to push the KLA units back from the border while he builds up ground defences against a Nato attack.

But the Serb incursion poses a subtler threat. Throughout the Kosovo crisis, for all the ties of blood and culture, Albania has tried to avoid stoking the fires of a "greater Albania," embracing all or most of Kosovo where Albanians until lately constituted 90 per cent of the population, and a slice of Western Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians are strongly represented. The very notion alarms all Slav populations of the region. More fighting could light the fuse of a wider, generalised conflict between Slavs and Albanians in the central Balkans.