In Serbia, Albanian gunmen go silently to work

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The Independent Online

The guerrillas who appeared round the corner in a muddy village in southern Serbia were reluctant to talk, and even more wary of being photographed.

The guerrillas who appeared round the corner in a muddy village in southern Serbia were reluctant to talk, and even more wary of being photographed.

"I have a reward on my head of 200,000 Deutschmarks," said their bearded, middle-aged leader, who refused to give his name. But he wanted to dispel some of the fears aroused by his shadowy movement, UCPMB, which has been accused of trying to embroil Nato in a new war against Serbia.

The UCPMB emerged barely a month ago in what is called "east Kosovo". The letters in its name are the Albanian initials for the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medveda and Bujanovac, three districts in southern Serbia where some 70,000 Albanians far outnumber Serbs. The group has been responsible for a number of armed attacks in recent days, the latest of which occurred while we were in the village of Dobrosin.

"We have a checkpoint outside the village on the road to Bujanovac," the leader said. "Half an hour ago we signalled a vehicle to stop, but it kept on towards us. Our soldier fired a warning shot, and when that failed he was ordered to shoot at the vehicle. Finally it stopped, and we discovered a man was wounded.

"He was a Serbian translator for an American journalist, travelling in an aid vehicle. We did not have the means to treat him here, so a villager drove the vehicle up to the American checkpoint on the border. We are very sorry this happened, but before the war in Kosovo the Serbs used to use aid vehicles for military purposes."

This did not accord with what we heard when we returned to Kosovo through the checkpoint, half a mile away. American soldiers said the man had been hit by two bullets, fired through the windscreen. After first aid he had been evacuated by helicopter to Camp Bondsteel, the main US base in Kosovo. The man was neither Serbian nor a translator but an Irish UN aid worker, Marcel Grogan, who was carrying out an assessment of needs in the district. Although he was based in Belgrade, his vehicle had UN markings. He was relatively lucky - the bullets hit his leg, and he is recovering.

We had heard a shot while we were sitting with Saqip Saqipi, 63, a woodcutter whose two sons, Isa and Shaip, were killed by Serbian policemen on 26 January. Their deaths, shot on their tractor while returning to Dobrosin with a load of wood, led to the foundation of the UCPMB, the local leader later told me. "The first time we appeared in uniform was at their funeral. This village is where it began. But we are simply local people defending our homes and our families. We are not looking for a fight with Serbia; we have been forced into this. We do not want to expand the conflict, nor are we seeking union with Kosovo."

But the UCPMB has called for Albanians to be united, and its creation has alarmed commanders of the K-For peacekeepers in Kosovo, as well as political leaders in the West. It is clearly modelled on the officially disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army - the shoulder patches worn by the guerrillas in Dobrosin are identical, apart from the initials - and nearly all its recruits used to be in the KLA.

At first the men looked out of place in Dobrosin, which has large houses built with money earned mainly in Switzerland, and cars with Swiss plates. Their uniforms were as mixed as their weapons - a welter of different camouflages, a couple of black jump-suits, an AK-47 here, a pistol there, one machine-gun and several long-bladed knives.

The village's appearance of prosperity was deceptive. Half the population of 2,600 fled to Kosovo, fearing Serbian retaliation, after K-For arrived last June, and most of the rest followed after the murder of the woodcutters in January.

"I thought I had everything after I came back from working in Switzerland and Germany," said the UCPMB leader, whose wife and four children are one of the few families who remain. "I built a big house one kilometre from here, but I have not been able to go there for five years."

Villagers said there had been repeated maltreatment this winter by Serbian police, particularly the MUP, the paramilitary interior ministry units notorious for atrocities in Kosovo, which had recently stepped up its presence. People had been beaten and robbed when they tried to go to Bujanovac, and the Serbs had come into Dobrosin several times, on one occasion stealing dozens of cars. The intimidation, blamed on policemen who used to be based in Kosovo, culminated in the killing of the woodcutters five weeks ago.

The UCPMB leader refused to discuss the strength of his group or recent local actions attributed to it, including the killing of three Serbs taken from their car, explosions in Bujanovac last Saturday and an ambush on police the following day, in which an Albanian and a Serbian policeman was killed. A villager said the Albanian was a UCPMB fighter.

In the past fortnight the Americans have moved their checkpoint and several armoured vehicles up to the border line, and erected a fortified observation post that overlooks Dobrosin. But in Gnjilane, the main town in the American zone, First Lieutenant Scott Olson, a US military spokesman, said plans for the reinforcement had been made "in response to local concerns on the Kosovo side" before the recent violence.

He said the local battalion commander, Colonel Jeff Snow, had requested a meeting with the UCPMB to explain the reasons for the move, but had also warned them that K-For would not intervene in fighting on the other side. Any men with weapons or uniforms who came into Kosovo would be detained.

In Gnjilane we also met an extremist who claimed the UCPMB was fighting for "the liberation of east Kosovo", but the Dobrosin commander dismissed him as "a drunk", saying: "It is the Belgrade regime which wants to destabilise things here. This is being imposed on us by people from outside."

Drawing his pistol, he said: "They won't get me alive. If they catch me, I'll shoot myself with this."