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Power Strategies Emerge Amidst Kosovo Turbulence

February 29, 2008

( Research Service)- New information from regional intelligence sources, as well as open-source channels, indicates that cross-border militant activities on at least four fronts are among the new developments to watch in the aftermath of Kosovo’s independence declaration on February 17.

While world attention has focused mainly on the political and legalistic dimensions of the Kosovo Albanian government’s declared independence on February 17, other concurrent developments indicate that the main actors are taking steps to change the facts on the ground in the short term, or produce a long-term deterrent by hastily securing a presence across a widening geographical terrain.

In south Serbia’s Presevo Valley, home of a substantial Albanian population, the Serbian government has been boosting the presence of its security forces. According to Skopje daily Vecer, the Serbian army is completing Tsepotine Base, also known as the “Serbian Bondsteel’ (a reference to the US Camp Bondsteel not far across the border in Kosovo). Its strategic high position allows commanding views of Kosovo to the east and Macedonia, 5km to the south. Although planned for five years, various issues and disagreements between the ministries of defense and internal affairs slowed it down, reports Vecer. However, with the independence of Kosovo, completing the 35-hectare base has become a priority. The construction of such a large base in this strategic triangle indicates Serbia’s concern to keep the presently quiet Presevo Valley from blowing up as it did in 2000. Also, for Russia, reportedly interested in some sort of a military presence with the help of the Serbs, the location is again ideal. Vecer reports that Serbia currently has 16 smaller bases along the 92km-long administrative border with Kosovo.

New information from Kosovo itself also suggests present Russian cooperation, with the presence of small numbers of alleged Russian military trainers, in civilian garb, in the northern Kosovo towns of Leposavic and Mitrovica. reported in late 2006 about the arrival here of Serbian special forces in civilian clothes, as a precaution in case of Albanian attacks. In 2006, it should be remembered, KFOR repopulated a disused base in the north of Kosovo, primarily to prevent Serbian troops from coming to the aid of their ethnic kin in case of any large-scale violence.

Two days after the Albanian’s independence declaration, Serb reservists and other agitators stormed and destroyed the nearby border post, gaining brief but important access into Kosovo before it was recovered by NATO troops. On February 27, Reuters reported that the Serb National Council in North Mitrovica had called for Russia “to return its KFOR contingent [in order to] to stabilize the situation in areas where Serbs are in the majority,” in the words of Council leader Milan Ivanovic. Although Russia had a small troop detachment in Kosovo from 1999-2003, it was deliberately not given its own sector equal to those of the other Great Powers, nor positioning in northern Kosovo. Now, it appears, Moscow will have in one way or another positioning in both northern Kosovo and the Presevo Valley.

Along with the attack on the UN border post in northern Kosovo on February 19, Serbian reservists have also made their presence felt on an eastern Kosovo border checkpoint. On February 25, rioting ensued at the Mutivode checkpoint, where 250 ex-serviceman from Medveda, KurˆšÃ–¬°umlija and Lebane clashed with Albanian KPS officers at the administrative boundary with Kosovo. The two sides hurled stones at one another, until the KPS used tear gas to dispel the Serbs. Strong winds, however, soon cleared the air for more conflict. “Tires were also set on fire, and the wind spread the blaze to both sides of the line,” reported B-92. “During the entire showdown between the demonstrators and the KPS, cordons of KFOR, on one, and Serbian MUP on the other side of the line, looked on without intervening.”

Serbs have begun other forms of symbolic protest within Kosovo. Serbian police employed within the KPS are threatening to trade in their uniforms for those of Serbia as soon as possible; on February 28, in line with Belgrade’s wide-ranging policies designed to reduce the ability of the self-declared state to function, Serbian KPS officers announced a general strike. The strike will create an interim period in which the officers can make a coordinated action. Even if the struggling UN mission, essentially ineffective north of the River Ibar, dismisses their rejection or tries to take stronger action, the departure of the token Serb presence would signal the end of any hopes for multi-ethnic law enforcement in Kosovo.

On February 27, KFOR sources indicated that British and Austro-German reserve battalions were being put on a heightened state of readiness and that the military mission was increasing its presence in the north. Some Albanians apparently intended to make preparations of their own. On February 21, the leader of the Albanian minority population of North Mitrovica, Adem Mripa, was arrested by KPS police. According to B-92, three Tromblon RPGs and several pieces of ammunition for sniper guns weapons were discovered in his house, in the ethnically mixed quarter of Bosniak Mahala. At the same time, “a bomb was found near a house owned by [Serbian resident] Jovan Ilic, which KFOR subsequently destroyed.” Serbs in the isolated enclaves of central and southern Kosovo are far more vulnerable. An eight-year-old girl was stoned in Ljiplan on February 23, Tanjug reported, while playing in her yard. Such attacks were a regular occurrence, the girl’s father told reporters.

The announced independence of Kosovo has taken on wider dimensions, however. Approximately 12 days ago, has learned, Macedonia’s intelligence services became aware of the re-opening of training camps/rear bases in the Kukes area of northern Albania. These bases, located near the clan stronghold of Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha, were where American and British military instructors trained Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers in safety for the 1998-99 campaign across the border in Kosovo. Reporters from Germany’s Spiegel in Kosovo, citing an Albanian paramilitary volunteer in the shadowy Albanian National Army, claim that the organization “takes orders from its head office in Tirana, Albania.” The ANA has recently stated its priority of monitoring the north of Kosovo and, if necessary, using force to prevent it from rejoining Serbia.

An expected complement to any Albanian irregular activity within Kosovo itself was likely to have been the paramilitary group destroyed in Macedonia’s “Operation Storm’ in November 2007. In the remote village of Brodec in the Sar Planina mountains above Tetovo, special police arrested or killed escaped criminals from Kosovo’s Dubrava Prison, and captured a sophisticated arsenal, sufficient for 650 men- for the moment at least neutralizing a major security threat before the anticipated secession decree in Kosovo to the north.

However, despite that coup, the Macedonian intelligence source stated that “very recently, we have received information that some small Albanian armed bands, 10-20 individuals or so in each, have re-entered Macedonian territory from Kosovo, in the Tetovo and Lipkovo regions- we are working on locating these groups before they can [become a threat]… however, the border is very easy to be crossed in those places, and they can easily escape from one side to the other when necessary.”

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