Former militia gather to fight if Kosovo splits from Serbia

Published May 6, 2007

BELGRADE, Serbia - Hundreds of former militia members from the Balkan wars regrouped outside a church in central Serbia on Saturday, promising to fight together as a paramilitary unit once more if Kosovo breaks away from the government in Belgrade.

Twenty-seven people were detained, all wearing T-shirts with symbols of the disbanded Unit for Special Operations, whose former commander is on trial with several members in the 2003 assassination of Serbia's reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

"We will never give up Kosovo, we are ready to fight, " said one of the organizers, Andrej Milic.

Milic said their unit will be available to the government if Serbia goes to war, and he called for a "new Serb uprising and a new battle for Kosovo."

The event illustrated the mounting nationalism over the Western-backed plan to allow Kosovo to split from Serbia as demanded by its ethnic Albanian majority.

Many of those in Krusevac on Saturday wore military uniforms with nationalist symbols typical of the notorious units accused of atrocities during the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Some wore T-shirts with images of U.N. war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic.

Kosovo is formally part of Serbia but is dominated by ethnic Albanians who are seeking independence. The region has been run by the United Nations since a 1998-99 Serb-Albanian war.

Talks on the formation of a new pro-Western government in Serbia remain deadlocked, triggering a political crisis that could pave the way for the return to power of the nationalists loyal to ex-leader Slobodan Milosevic.

The United States and its allies favor internationally supervised independence for the province, as proposed in the U.N. plan, but Russia opposes it, signaling a possible showdown at the U.N. Security Council, which will have the final say on the matter.

Most Serbs consider Kosovo the heartland of their history and culture. The government in Belgrade has rejected the plan.

The volunteer units were first founded in the early 1990s, during the rule of the late Milosevic, who took Serbia to four wars during his decade in power.

Dragoljub Vasiljevic, one of the volunteers who came to Krusevac on Saturday, denied the brutality allegations, telling the Beta news agency that they were "honorable and brave" fighters.

Organizers said that their unit will be named after a medieval Serb leader, Czar Lazar, who reportedly led the Serb army in a crucial battle against the Ottoman Turks in Kosovo in 1389. The Serbs lost but cherish the event as one of the most important in their history.