In an area a few hundred miles from the heart of Europe, the inhabitants of small villages have been forced to take up weapons in defense of their homes as a result of armed “incidents” provoked by Islamic militants, according to Balkan sources.

The activities of guerrilla bands have prompted the residents of mountain villages in southern Serbia to “once again” establish “village guards,” and “self-organize themselves with arms” on account of “the small number of soldiers and policemen” in the area.

The statements were carried by Radio Yugoslavia, the official broadcasting Internet news service of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Serbia is the larger of the two remaining members of the Yugoslav federation, the other being the much smaller – and restive – Montenegro.

The guerrilla groups are ethnic Albanian militants fighting for independence and, according to their opponents, an Islamic “Greater Albania,” which would eventually include Kosovo, the southern area of Serbia on the border with Kosovo, northern Macedonia and Albania itself.

The militant ethnic Albanians have been tied to Islamic extremists, including Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization.

Village officials in southern Serbia fear that “extremists could burst into the villages” and gain control of the area, as has previously occurred in the neighboring municipalities of Presevo and Bujanovac.

The Yugoslav army did finally reassert its authority in the Presevo and Bujanovac areas, but the area remains tense with still-active guerrilla bands.

There are “media reports that [gun]fire is heard more often in southern Serbia on the border toward Kosovo,” while police “in the region of Presevo” have uncovered guerrilla arms caches, Radio Yugoslavia stated.

Southern Serbia has experienced two years of armed conflict between Yugoslav troops and ethnic Albanian guerrilla forces, which Belgrade claims are trained and equipped across the border in Kosovo.

Kosovo is nominally part of Serbia and a Yugoslav province but has been controlled by NATO since the end of the 78-day air war against Yugoslavia. NATO has come under persistent – and at times bitter – criticism for its governing of Kosovo from several quarters, including Moscow.

Critics claim that NATO authorities in Kosovo are not rigorous enough in suppressing armed Albanian militants who still operate in the province and who supply other guerrilla groups operating in the region, including in neighboring Macedonia.

The Macedonian deputy defense minister, Boris Zmejkovski, stated in a recent press conference that ethnic Albanian guerrillas, supported by “new contingents of sophisticated weapons” brought into Macedonia – presumably coming from Kosovo – are planning a “spring offensive” against the Macedonian government, according to a report from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

NATO, which is conducting a major peacekeeping operation in Macedonia, denies that there is “any real evidence at the moment” of a threat of a major attack, according to the Macedonian Information Agency, the official Macedonian press agency.

A spokesman for NATO in Brussels, Mark Laity, urged the people of Macedonia “to direct their attention towards the things that occur around them and not speculate about what might happen.”

“A small number of isolated people can create incidents without the support from the people,” Laity stated.

NATO’s reassurances came despite “a significant number of reports in the papers” concerning the possibility of a new round in war-torn Macedonia’s civil conflict, according to the Macedonian Information Agency.

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