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Yugoslavia: Refugees Streaming Out Of Serbia's Presevo Valley

  • Jolyon Naegele

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says large numbers of refugees fled over the weekend from the Presevo valley in southern Serbia into neighboring Kosovo and Macedonia as Yugoslav forces consolidated their position against insurgent ethnic Albanian separatists. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Pristina that, at the same time, KFOR peacekeepers in Kosovo intercepted two consignments of weapons destined for rebels in the Presevo valley.

Pristina, Kosovo; 27 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Many residents of southernmost Serbia's Presevo valley have now fled to the relative safety of Kosovo and Macedonia.

They were moved to do so over the weekend by the apparent seizure by separatist Albanians of four villages near Serbia's boundary with Kosovo, the killing of three Serbian policemen, and the Yugoslav Army's deployment of tanks and armored personal carriers in the area.

The weekend's events represent the latest in a series of emigration waves from the Presevo valley this year that resulted from clashes between Serbian police and ethnic Albanian insurgents.

In Kosovo's capital Pristina, Astrid van Genderen-Stort -- a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR -- says both ethnic Albanians and Serbs fled the Presevo valley area yesterday. She estimated that some 1,600 ethnic Albanians had fled to Kosovo and 500 ethnic Albanians and Serbs to Macedonia.

"She said refugees reported that the Serb military build-up continued today and people feared attacks. The latest movement of internally displaced people has increased the number of new arrivals this week, ending yesterday, to well over 2,000 persons (to Kosovo). All figures are reliable approximations."

Van Genderen-Stort says most of the Albanians were fleeing from two villages, Nazelce and Oslare, which have a combined population of 2,800, after -- they said -- the Yugoslav military and Serbian police had surrounded the villages. But after bringing their families to Kosovo, many men returned to their villages on the Serbian side of the border.

Yugoslav forces have given the insurgent Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja -- known by the acronym UCPMB -- until this (Monday) evening (1900 local time) to withdraw from the four villages. They are all in a five-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone along Serbia's boundary with Kosovo. Unless UCPMB forces withdraw, the Yugoslav army says it will use what it calls "all available means" against the insurgents.

The Presevo valley is known to Albanians as Eastern Kosovo and to many Serbs as the Kosovo-Morava region ("Kosovska Pomoravlje"). The area, which still has a substantial ethnic-Albanian population, was once a part of Kosovo, although not in recent decades.

A KFOR spokesman, British Flight-Lieutenant Mark Whitty, told reporters today that violence between the UCPMB and Serbian Interior Ministry forces appears to have diminished. But Whitty says the situation, as he puts it, "still warrants continued vigilance." He says a cease-fire as well as what he describes as "enhanced security procedures" are providing stability to the region.

Whitty says that in the past week KFOR has apprehended 12 insurgents who he says are suspected of violent activity in the Presevo valley. He says KFOR has closed the road from Kosovo to the village of Dobrosin, one kilometer inside Yugoslav territory, except for deliveries of humanitarian aid. Dobrosin is believed to be the headquarters of the UCPMB.

Spokesman Whitty says KFOR will not tolerate Kosovo being used as a base for exporting violence.

"We've had two major weapons finds Friday and Saturday, which indicates that we are determined to prevent weapons flowing into the ground safety [demilitarized] zone. [The first find was] a number of mortar rounds, RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades and] a heavy machine-gun that were being transported on a lorry into Dobrosin. The second find was near the boundary with the ground safety zone, where we found a mortar, a 62-mm mortar tube, a number of mortar rounds."

The KFOR spokesman reiterated the international community's denunciation of the violence. He urged the new moderate leaderships in Kosovo and Yugoslavia to avoid measures that could reduce stability in the region.

"All responsible leaders are urged to denounce and deter violence by armed insurgents. The fledgling democracies of both sides risk losing credibility in the eyes of the international community. Unprovoked offensive actions by either side will reduce stability in the region. Peaceful negotiation is the only path."

Whitty today confirmed that KFOR facilitated negotiations between the ethnic Albanian insurgents and the Belgrade government, but he declined to go into any detail. Serbian Interior Ministry officials have denied they had any contact with what they term "terrorists."

In a televised statement last night, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica defended his decision to resolve the situation militarily. In his words: "We have to save lives and we do not want to be drawn into another provocation that could change the current favorable international position of Yugoslavia and possibly trigger another intervention from abroad."

In Vienna today, Kostunica told the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that the insurgents are trying to intimidate both Albanians and Serbs. He criticized KFOR and the UN for having "failed to do their job properly."

Political observers in Pristina say it is not clear whether the UCPMB is the sole instigator of the recent clashes or whether Serbian forces loyal to former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic are inciting trouble in a bid to discredit and destabilize the new Kostunica leadership. Although UCPMB continues to smuggle weapons across the boundary from Kosovo, observers in Pristina say it appears the insurgents are also purchasing weapons in Serbia.