U.S. troops seize weapons in crackdown on Albanian militants

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The Independent Online

In a crackdown against ethnic Albanian militants, U.S. troops raided hideouts along Kosovo's boundary with Serbia, seizing weapons and ammunition and detaining nine people, the U.S. military said Thursday.

The U.S. military's Task Force Falcon said in a statement that search operations would continue until the areas along the boundary "have been thoroughly cleared."

In the operation Wednesday, troops of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, using helicopters and armored vehicles, seized more than 200 uniforms, 22 crates of rifle and machine gun ammunition, two mortars, 28 hand grenades, seven rifles, six land mines and other military supplies, the military said.

Task Force Falcon said the sites "were clearly being used as cache sites for weapons, ammunition and supplies" for "fringe or extremist elements operating in Kosovo, Macedonia or the Presevo Valley" of southern Serbia.

The action reflects concern by the United States and other Western governments about cross-border raids by ethnic Albanian militants from Kosovo into the Presevo Valley, which has a substantial ethnic Albanian population.

NATO officials said about 300 American troops carried out the operation and that the uniforms seized in the raids included black and red insignias of the "Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac," after three predominantly ethnic Albanian towns across the boundary in southern Serbia.

Known by its Albanian acronym UCPMB, its fighters say they are trying to protect villagers in the region from brutal attacks by Serb forces.

Serb police have stepped up their own operations within the area, which is not part of the territory included in the mandate of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission, which came to Kosovo in June after the 78-day NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.

The boundary between the Presevo Valley and Kosovo is patrolled by American troops, and Washington clearly wants to demonstrate that it will not allow Kosovo to be used as a staging area for ethnic Albanian attacks in the rest of southern Serbia.

"Any insurgent activity that endangers the progress achieved to date in Kosovo will not be tolerated, regardless of the nature of the group engaged in such activity," the military said.

Ethnic Albanian attacks on Serb police in Kosovo more than a year ago prompted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to crack down on ethnic Albanians. Hundreds of thousands were expelled from their homes before the American and NATO air bombardment forced Milosevic to retreat.

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin delivered a stern message to ethnic Albanian leaders this week in an effort to head off any attempt to repeat the scenario across Kosovo's eastern border in Serbia.

"I believe they understand the seriousness of the situation and that we are coming at them as a friend," Rubin said Wednesday in Washington. "I hope they will do more to prevent these things from happening."