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New conflict threatens Balkans

Serbian leaders yesterday pledged better treatment of ethnic Albanians, as unrest grows across the region.

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A surge in violence over the past 10 days in southern Serbia, Kosovo, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is underscoring how interconnected the region is despite national boundaries.

Analysts say the clock is ticking for Belgrade to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in the southern Presevo Valley, where armed ethnic-Albanian separatists threaten to destabilize the region. The arrival of spring, and warmer weather, increases the likelihood of new military attacks.

Carl Bildt, the United Nations special coordinator for the Balkans, on Monday called Presevo, "The most serious threat to stability in the Balkans, and there is very little awareness or attention to what is about to explode."

Late last week, separatist fighters - who want to unite the Presevo area with Kosovo - launched their most serious attack in months, killing a Yugoslav soldier and wounding four others. Previous attacks have killed several Serb police officers, but the incident marked the first death of an Army soldier.

In Kosovo, the NATO-led KFOR protection force is sending reinforcements to Mitrovica, where French peacekeepers fired tear gas at ethnic-Albanian demonstrators yesterday in a second day of violent protests. The demonstrations follow Monday's killing of an Albanian teenager, in which Serbs are suspected. The ethnically divided town has been a past flashpoint for violence.

On Jan. 22, ethnic Albanian guerrillas attacked a police station in Macedonia, killing a police officer in the first such organized attack there in the post-Kosovo era.

But the hub of regional unrest is Presevo, where the estimated 700-member Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedje, and Bujanovac (PMBLA) operates inside a three-mile-wide security zone that is off limits to both NATO troops and the Yugoslav Army. The buffer zone was established in 1999, at the end of the NATO bombing campaign.

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