Rise of Armed Civilians Adds to Kosovo Dangers Visit to Province This Week by Radical Serb Official May Have Sparked a New Spate of Ethnic Killings by Serbs

Article excerpt

Less than 24 hours after Serbian radical leader Vojislav Seselj came to this bucolic farming village in western Kosovo, the killing began.

On a tree-lined street lies an unidentified body. In the neighboring village of Lodza, ethnic Albanians speak of guerrilla fighters killed in combat.

Mr. Seselj, a recently appointed vice prime minister in the Serbian government, toured parts of Kosovo, including the Serb- inhabited village of Gorazdevac, on July 5. His visit, Serbs and Albanians say, provoked a new round of civilian fighting.

In what Western diplomats say is a dangerous new trend in Kosovo, Seselj and other Serbian officials have begun to encourage Serbian civilians to take up arms. In some cases, authorities have distributed guns to the Serbian population.

"Albanian terrorists only exist because our police {force} is letting them," Mr. Seselj told reporters recently, referring to the independence-seeking Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which is estimated to control 40 percent of the region.

The irregular fighting in Kosovo comes just as the international community has begun to press for a cease-fire. Led by the six-country Contact Group on the former Yugoslavia, diplomats this week launched a monitoring mission that would help pinpoint areas of conflict and presumably pave the way for a halt in the fighting.

But, say diplomats in the region, armed civilians could harm prospects for peace because they are not easily controlled by the centralized government in Belgrade. The same can be said of the KLA, which lacks a clear chain of command.

Furthermore, the growth of independent fighters indicates that the Serbs are losing control of Kosovo, which they consider to be the cradle of their culture and is also a source of mineral wealth.

"This is alarming," says a Western observer in Kosovo. "We don't know what to expect from these {armed civilians} and we don't know if they can be controlled. …