By DUSAN STOJANOVIC
Associated Press Writer
NOVI PAZAR, Serbia (AP) - The discovery of a mountain cave packed with plastic explosives, masks and machine guns - and the recent arrests of men devoted to radical Islam - have fueled fears that extremists are trying to carve out a stronghold in this remote corner of Europe.
Police in southern Serbia's Sandzak region last month arrested six local Muslims and accused them of belonging to a fundamentalist Wahhabi sect - an austere brand of Sunni Islam promoted by extremists, including the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida fighters.
Recently leaked Western intelligence reports allege that the tense, impoverished area, along with Muslim-dominated regions in neighboring Bosnia, are rich ground for recruiting so-called ``white al-Qaida'' - Muslims with Western features who could easily blend into European or U.S. cities and carry out attacks. Al-Qaida and other radical Islamic groups, the reports warn, may be trying to increase their influence in the Muslim-populated regions in the southern Europe to penetrate deeper into the continent.
The presence of radical Muslims in Sandzak, the poorest region of Serbia, is linked to the advent of mujahedeen foreign fighters who joined Bosnian Muslims in their battle against the Serbs in Bosnia's 1992-95 independence war. Sandzak's Muslims like to be called Bosniaks because they believe they ethnically belong to Bosnia, not Serbia.
A March 16 police raid on what authorities said was a mountain terrorist camp just south of Novi Pazar unveiled a large cache of weapons, ammunition, hand grenades, plastic explosives and face masks. Authorities captured four of the suspected Wahhabi Muslims in the raid, and two others four days later. TV footage of the cave broadcast in Serbia also showed a black flag with a Quran inscription in Arabic, and propaganda material that investigators said praised bin Laden and al-Qaida.
``The lethal mix of inter-Muslim and interethnic tensions, poverty and organized crime definitely has a potential for trouble,'' a Western diplomat, who asked not to be named in order not to interfere with the police investigation, told The Associated Press.
``The 'white al-Qaida' certainly can find fertile ground in the region,'' he said.
Police claimed that up to 30 radical Muslims trained at the mountain camp, and that militants they referred to as ``Wahhabi terrorists'' planned unspecified actions at home and abroad.
Police in Kosovo said they were searching for one of the suspects, whom they identified as Ismail Prentic - a man they warned ``should be considered armed and dangerous.''
Local politicians said the group initially may have been plotting to attack moderate Muslims whom its members have denounced as infidels. ``There are numerous indications that something nasty was being prepared in Sandzak,'' said Dragan Simeunovic, an analyst.
Last autumn, young men with long beards, white skull caps and ankle-short pants clashed with security in Novi Pazar's downtown Arap mosque. At least two people were injured in an ensuing firefight.
Muamer Zukorlic, Novi Pazar's mufti, describes the attackers as Wahhabi ``extremists who want to express their domination'' over local moderate Muslims. ``In some mosques, they collected prayer beads and hurled them into a nearby river,'' Zukorlic said. ``They often shout in the mosques, interrupt prayers and provoke believers.''
As the ultraconservatives increasingly make their presence known in Novi Pazar, the scene is more Saudi than Serbian. Chants of muezzins echo from minarets across the town of 100,000, which is nearly 90 percent Muslim. Beggars crowd around yellow-brick buildings, and vendors at makeshift markets peddle everything from framed Quran verses to counterfeit designer blue jeans, watches and perfumes. Many women are clad head to toe in black.
Among fundamentalists like Edin Bejtovic, an unofficial spokesman for the conservative Muslim community, the mood is staunchly anti-American and in support of the radical Islamic insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
``According to the Americans, every average Muslim is a potential terrorist,'' said Bejtovic, who denied claims in Serbian media that his group is financed by Saudi Arabia-based radicals and that it was plotting attacks.
But he warned: ``It can all become true if the Americans don't stop their destruction of Muslim nations and Islam.''
There are fears that religious tensions in Sandzak, a center for organized drug trafficking and human smuggling, could further destabilize the already volatile southern Balkans.
A recent report by the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs identified Sandzak as ``the center point'' on a Balkan drug smuggling route that leads from Afghanistan via Turkey to Western Europe.
``The ability of organized crime groups to exploit the porous borders and weak infrastructure threatens political stability and economic development'' of Serbia, the report said.