By Richard Mertens , Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Single file and laden with gear, eight American soldiers trudge along a muddy track in the hills of southern Kosovo. They speak little, communicating with hand signals and low whistles.
The track leads them up a high, forested ridge that separates Kosovo from the rest of Serbia. Last year, ethnic-Albanian refugees from nearby villages used it to flee into Macedonia during a crackdown by Yugoslav troops. The killings and mass expulsions prompted 78 days of NATO airstrikes followed by the arrival of an international protection force, known as KFOR, in Kosovo.
The US soldiers pass eerie reminders of the refugees' flight: piles of garbage, discarded clothing, a girl's platform shoe. But these relics of old terror do not interest them. They are on the lookout for fresh threats to Kosovo's shaky peace.
"If we see any tractors or vehicles coming down that route, we'll search them and ask them questions," Sgt. Terrence Riley has instructed his soldiers, adding that they are looking for "new fighting positions," unexploded munitions, and mine fields.
This routine patrol is part of increasing efforts to head off a fresh outbreak of violence just over the Kosovo border. An ethnic-Albanian guerrilla force has recently emerged in the Presevo Valley, a predominantly Albanian area of southern Serbia to the east of Kosovo. The group has clashed with Serbian police and alarmed officials overseeing the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. The insurgency especially worries the Americans, who are responsible for the region of Kosovo bordering the Presevo Valley. US Army commanders believe the guerrillas are being supplied from Kosovo and could attempt to use the territory to mount attacks on Serbian police. A Pentagon official warned this week that the Americans could themselves wind up in a confrontation with the insurgents.
On Wednesday, US troops carried out dawn raids at five separate locations within two miles of the border. The effort uncovered at least one site identified as a "training or staging" base. The US military's Task Force Falcon announced the sweep resulted in nine arrests and the confiscation of 22 crates of ammunition, as well as mortars, hand grenades, rifles, land mines, explosives, and more than 200 uniforms. Some bore the insignia of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac, the new rebel group. Task Force Falcon said no one was hurt, and no shots were fired. Some locations were protected by mine fields, it said.
It was the biggest operation yet for the US peacekeepers along the border. But if it demonstrated resolve to stop insurgents from using Kosovo as a base, it also gave evidence of the challenge the Americans face. Senior US and international military and civilian officials call the insurgents "fringe elements." It's estimated they number about 500 fighters in eight to 10 separate groups. They include former members of the disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic-Albanian force that fought Serbian police in Kosovo from 1998 until last spring.
In an ominous echo of last year's violence, Serb police have responded by stepping up operations near the border, prompting hundreds of ethnic Albanians to flee. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has accused the United Nations of financing "terrorism" in Kosovo, and hinted he might again send troops to protect minority Serbs. Clashes on Wednesday in the divided city of Mitrovica injured 15 Serbs and an undetermined number of NATO peacekeepers and journalists.
In Zagreb, Croatia, yesterday, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said, "Milosevic will no doubt continue to try to make mischief in the Balkans, but we will resist that mischief-making."
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, meanwhile, called recent incursions into southern Serbia provocative. "It is clear that it is Albanians who are now causing this provocation," he said at a press conference in Paris. American and NATO officials are applying intense pressure on ethnic-Albanian leaders to head off further unrest. They have warned them not to support the insurgency, and have tried to discourage hopes that NATO might intervene on behalf of ethnic Albanians outside Kosovo.
In addition, Gen. Klaus Reinhardt, the German commander of peacekeeping forces in Kosovo, has asked US troops to make greater efforts to prevent guns and armed men from crossing the border. Before Wednesday's raid, the Americans had set up new outposts and increased patrols.
But such policing is not easy. As Sergeant Riley's squad climbs higher into the hills, the mud turns to ice and the land grows steeper and more rugged. The soldiers pass many small trails and wagon tracks that disappear into the trees on either side. "That's the basic problem," Riley says. "There are spider trails all around up here that vehicles could come down." American commanders say they lack the manpower to seal off the border region.
The squad marches for an hour, then turns around. Near their starting point, they come into view of Dobrosin, a village just over the border that is thought to be the center of the new ethnic-Albanian insurgency. They pause to peer down into the village with binoculars. On occasion, American soldiers say they have seen fighters on training maneuvers. But today, Dobrosin seems quiet and almost empty.
Then they spot a tractor growling up the slope, pulling a wagon stacked with hay. When it reaches the top, Riley steps forward. "Where are you going?" he asks through his interpreter. "Why have you not taken the main road?" The farmers insist they carry nothing illegal. They avoided the road because it is blocked with cars waiting at the border checkpoint. "You probably see me every day," says the driver. The men hardly look like guerrillas, and they are going in the wrong direction, into Kosovo rather than out. But the soldiers demand they unload. Ten minutes later, it becomes clear that the load contains - just hay.
"Nine times out of 10 these don't have anything," Riley remarks. "But then there might be that tenth time when they might have something."