- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007

BELGRADE, Serbia — Hard-line nationalist political forces say they will arm, train and dispatch paramilitary units to confront NATO-led forces in Kosovo if the U.N. Security Council approves a plan to give the Albanian-majority province independence from Serbia.

Petar Vasiljevic, president of the little-known Serbian Veterans Group, told a Belgrade newspaper late last month that the first armed units of the nationalist militia will muster today in the central Serbian city of Krusevac.

Mr. Vasiljevic, a member of parliament from the party tied to former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, told the Danas newspaper that the first units will be made up of “volunteers” who gained military experience in the wars that marked the breakup of the former Yugoslavia during Mr. Milosevic’s rule in the 1990s.

“The number of our eager volunteers already topped the 5,000 mark, and this is just the beginning,” Mr. Vasiljevic said. “Our goal is to free Kosovo and Metohija” — the preferred Serbian name for the province that many consider the birthplace of Serbian culture and religion.

Eight years after NATO air strikes drove Serbian forces from the province, the U.N. Security Council powers are weighing a proposal by Finnish special envoy Martti Ahtisaari granting Kosovo “supervised independence,” a proposal that most see as leading to a full and final break with Belgrade.

Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, estimated to be at least 90 percent of the province’s 2 million people, overwhelmingly favor independence. The United States and European Union have backed the Ahtisaari plan, fearing violence from Kosovar Albanian separatists if they are forced to remain in Serbia.

But Russia, a traditional Serbian ally, has refused to endorse the Ahtisaari blueprint without Belgrade’s approval, and the Security Council has yet to reach a consensus. About 100,000 ethnic Serbs live in Kosovo, many clustered in enclaves in the province’s north.

An international force of 16,000 soldiers, including U.S. troops, has kept an uneasy peace in Kosovo as the negotiations over its final status have dragged on. Diplomats from the Contact Group of countries seeking to forge a Kosovo solution met again in London on Thursday without reaching a compromise.

German Col. Michael Knop, public information officer for “Kfor,” as the multinational force in Kosovo is known, said in an e-mail from Pristina on Thursday that, “according to our investigations, there are no paramilitary forces operating in Kosovo.”

Col. Knop said Kfor has had a good working relationship with the Serbian armed forces, regularly conducting joint patrol missions. Serbia has 11 military bases stationed along the unofficial 106-mile border with Kosovo.

Kfor “will respond strongly against any individual or groups of individuals tempted to undermine peace and security in Kosovo, instantaneously if necessary,” the colonel said.

Mr. Vasiljevic said hundreds of Serbian veterans drawn from more than two dozen towns across the country would be at the swearing-in ceremony today for members of the Tsar Lazar Movement, named for a 14th-century Serbian noble and nationalist icon killed in a battle at Kosovo.

Word of the Kosovo militia force comes just weeks after four members of a previous Serbian paramilitary unit known as the Scorpions were convicted by a Belgrade war crimes court of murdering six Bosnian Muslims during the 1995 siege of Srebrenica.

International investigators say about 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred by Serbian forces at Srebrenica, the worst mass killing in Europe since World War II.

The leading political parties in Serbia all fiercely oppose independence for Kosovo, but even some hard-line nationalist figures were warning against paramilitary resistance.

Dragan Todorovic of the ultranationalist Radical Party told the Belgrade daily Kurir that the armed militias sent to protect Kosovo Serbs “could backfire.”

“I understand the intention of every Serb patriot to do all in his power to prevent the theft of our province,” he said. “But we must take care because such actions can be damaging.”

• David R. Sands in Washington contributed to this article.

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