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US faces war with ex-KLA

Pentagon braced for bloodshed after raids on guerrillas Kosovo: special report

Ed Vulliamy in New York and Helena Smith in Pristina Observer, Sunday March 19, 2000

US troops should prepare for battle with the former soldiers of the Kosovo Liberation Army, officials in Washington are warning. A year after Nato launched a bombing campaign to rescue the KLA, Pentagon commanders have formally alerted the US military that it expects to have to engage its former allies 'this spring'.

This comes as senior officials in the Defence Department continue to fight plans to send further reinforcements into what many consider a potential war zone.

The grim prognosis for the restive province has emerged days before the first anniversary of Nato's bombing raids against Yugoslavia after Slobodan Milosevic's refusal to negotiate over Kosovo.

It arises amid increasing tension between Washington and Nato commanders in Brussels over the peacekeeping operation in Kosovo.

US military officials and Western diplomats based in Pristina, Kosovo's edgy capital, say there is evidence that Albanian insurgents are bent on stirring trouble in southern Serbia, on the province's eastern boundary. They say they must be stopped now if bloodshed across the entire region is to be averted - not least in Macedonia, where conflict could easily trigger a much wider conflagration.

Diplomatic sources in Pristina warn that the extremists, who call themselves the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB) - named after the three Albanian-inhabited towns in southern Serbia's Presevo valley - should expect more US raids on strongholds of ethnic Albanian guerrillas of the sort conducted last week.

Weapons, ammunition and a supply cache were seized in the raids, aimed at stopping guerrillas from using Kosovo's US-controlled sector as a launching pad for cross-border strikes on Serbia. Analysts believe some 800 men have enrolled with the well-armed UCPMB, formed to 'protect' an estimated 70,000 Albanians living in Serbia within 15 kilometres of the Kosovo border.

'There is scope for great trouble. The next three months will be crucial in determining whether Kosovo is going to be a short-term success or a millstone around the neck of the international community,' said one European Union diplomat. 'We should expect to see more operations by US troops against guerrilla camps in the coming weeks. Frankly Nato is very frustrated that it can't go into Presevo and ensure the peace, that all it can do is seal the border.'

Talking to The Observer on Friday, a Pentagon official said the 'personal security' of US troops would be among 'elements that need looking at' before any manpower boost. The official said the Defence Department is operating on the premise that 'an armed conflict situation with the KLA is much more likely now than has been the case'. One official just returned from Kosovo told US Defence Secretary William Cohen on Wednesday that the intervention was at a 'decisive moment' and back at 'ground zero' a year after it began.

The situation of US troops was 'precarious', said the official. 'This has got to cease and desist, and if not, ultimately it is going to lead to confrontation between ethnic Albanians and K-For.'

Other officials told the New York Times that 'troops could not keep the peace between Serbs and Albanians within Kosovo and seal Kosovo's borders'. They added that last week's raid by the US military on KLA command posts and arms caches was a 'first step' to rein in the Kosovo Albanians. 'This was the first time,' said one official, 'that we went after something like an organised military infrastructure as opposed to searching houses where we suspected someone was holding a rifle or two.'

'There is an old American saying that "when the wood creaks, out come the freaks", but there is no way we are going to tolerate any trouble this spring,' said a US officer. 'We are very serious.'

In Washington, however, the tough Pentagon talk is at odds with the cautious optimism of James Rubin, the US Under-Secretary of State who returned from Kosovo to say: 'We do not believe we are drifting towards a conflict with Kosovo Albanian insurgents.' Rubin believed there was a 'deep reservoir of respect, thanks and goodwill towards the United States' among ethnic Albanians.

Rubin did, however, qualify his words with a warning that 'it would be a grave mistake to challenge American troops'.

A senior Pentagon officer countered: 'We have now fired the first shot at the Albanian insurgents and insurgents have a tendency to carry a grudge. If they come to see us as an enemy then [the raid] will be seen as a turning point.'

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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