06 February 2007

Rebel "army" resurfaces in Kosovo - residents


Source: Reuters Foundation
Date: 08 Dec 2006

By Fatos Bytyci

PRISTINA, Serbia, Dec 8 (Reuters) - Armed men identifying themselves as soldiers of an outlawed self-proclaimed army are patrolling roads in western Kosovo, residents said on Friday.

Masked men have been stopping cars at night and checking documents, they said. The men claimed to be part of the Albanian National Army (ANA), a shadowy group labelled terrorists in 2003 by the U.N. mission running the breakaway Serbian province.

Police confirmed armed men dressed in black had set up a checkpoint this week near the town of Djakovica, 80 kilometres (57 miles) west of the capital, Pristina.

A police spokesman said it was unclear whether they were members of the ANA. "We just know they are armed people wearing masks", said regional spokesman Avni Gjevukaj. Reports said there had been a brief exchange of fire with police.

Kosovo is braced for possible violence after a decision on the Albanian majority's demand for independence was delayed until next year. Diplomats say some form of independence is likely but Russian support for Serbia is a complicating factor.

Kosovo's 2 million Albanians are growing increasingly impatient and some leaders have warned of unrest.

In his latest report on Kosovo, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will tell the Security Council next week that "fringe groups and extremists" stand ready to exploit widespread frustration after seven years of U.N.-imposed limbo.

Dismissed by some diplomats as little more than an "internet army", the ANA has claimed responsibility for attacks in Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia's southern Presevo Valley in the years since NATO bombs drove Serb forces from Kosovo in 1999.

Similar reports of armed checkpoints in Kosovo surfaced in late 2005. The 17,000-strong NATO-led peace force dismissed the masked men as "bandits" robbing cars.

A spokesman for NATO's Kosovo Force, KFOR, said on Friday police had informed KFOR and the issue should not be "blown out of proportion".

Illegal checkpoints and ominous communiques were the early hallmarks of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which emerged in 1998 to launch a guerrilla war against Serb forces and at one point controlled 50 percent of the territory.

U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari is expected to submit his proposal on Kosovo's "final status" after a general election in Serbia on Jan. 21. It is expected to set the province on the path to independence but recognition could take months.