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Yugoslavia: Belgrade Strengthening Forces In Serbia's Presevo Valley

  • Jolyon Naegele

The Yugoslav military and armed ethnic Albanian insurgents have reportedly agreed on an indefinite cease-fire along southern Serbia's border with Kosovo. Yugoslav Interior Minister Zoran Zivkovic says the KFOR-brokered deal should give both sides time to find a diplomatic solution. But RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Bujanovac in Serbia's Presevo Valley that the Yugoslav military is still deploying forces for a face-off and local residents fear the worst.

Bujanovac, Yugoslavia; 29 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Even as news settles in of yesterday's cease-fire between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian insurgents in Serbia's Presevo Valley, tensions in the ethnically mixed border town of Bujanovac are running high.

A long column of several hundred Serbian interior ministry troops -- known by the acronym MUP -- in armored personnel carriers, transport trucks, and shiny all-terrain vehicles can be seen making its way through the town toward a buffer zone with Kosovo, less than 10 kilometers away.

A separate column of Yugoslav army vehicles loaded with soldiers is moving slowly down the highway toward the ethnic Albanian-majority town of Presevo, where both the army and interior ministry forces have set up bases. Meanwhile, two U.S.-KFOR Apache helicopters hover above the administrative boundary between Kosovo and Serbia, observing the military activity.

Just on the edge of the largest ethnic Albanian village in the area, Veliki Trnovac, a special so-called "red-beret" Interior Ministry Unit has set up camp. The village is home to some 10,000 Albanians, and police are controlling all traffic in and out of the village.

Residents say some 500 inhabitants have fled in recent days out of fear of a Yugoslav army ultimatum earlier this week to use strong force if ethnic Albanian fighters don't leave the area. The rebels belong to a group calling itself the Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac, and Medvedja -- three towns in southern Serbia.

Large numbers of Albanian men gather along Veliki Trnovac's main street waiting and worrying about the MUP troops' next move. Few are willing to talk to reporters and no one is willing to give his name. One elderly man told our correspondent:

"Yesterday (Monday, Nov 27), we went to Bujanovac to buy milk -- me, my grandchild, my young friend, and his children. [The police] stopped us and asked where we were going. We said. 'We are going to get milk.' They said: 'Go back and you'll see how people are going to die in [Veliki] Trnovac. Just wait until seven o'clock, when the ultimatum expires, and everyone is going to die.' So we returned and here we are standing around, encircled on all sides."

Another elderly man says he feared the police would reduce the village "to ashes" once the ultimatum expired.

The police and interior ministry troops suspect that Veliki Trnovac is being used as a base for the insurgents. This is something the villagers deny. They say the rebels are in the densely forested hills toward the boundary with Kosovo.

Officials with the NATO-led Kosovo Peacekeeping Force, or KFOR, said Monday that the Yugoslav ultimatum had been postponed indefinitely following talks in Vienna between U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic.

Yesterday (Tuesday), KFOR announced that both Serbs and ethnic Albanians had agreed to a cease-fire through Friday. KFOR says the cease-fire may be extended indefinitely. The agreement came after clashes last week between the Yugoslav military and armed ethnic Albanians who are members of the liberation army. Four Serbian policemen died in the fighting. The insurgents want the largely ethnic Albanian Presevo Valley to be linked with Kosovo.

The Yugoslav Interior Ministry now says it is in full control of the area except for six villages, where the insurgents -- estimated by the ministry to number 800 -- are in control. KFOR says there are far fewer insurgents. The situation is said to be stabilizing since Belgrade suspended its ultimatum to use force.

In another village, Lucane, just southwest of Bujanovac, MUP troops have set up a road block and machinegun nests about 2 kilometers down the road from the nearest insurgent position.

The tense atmosphere is reminiscent of Kosovo during the 1990s. But nearly eight weeks after the fall of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, it is unclear how long his democratic successor, Vojislav Kostunica, will be able to resist calls from Serbian residents for a crackdown.

Kostunica visited Bujanovac Monday evening to assure Serbs living there that he will not let the Presevo Valley fall to the rebels. But, he said, he would not permit either a repetition of the fighting between ethnic Albanian insurgents and Belgrade's forces in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999.

Kostunica's visit was followed yesterday by an inspection of forces by Yugoslav Army chief of staff and former commander of Yugoslav forces in Kosovo, General Nebojsa Pavkovic. Pavkovic's line was tougher than the president's. He said "something" has to be done with what he called "Albanian terrorists" who have set fires in the security zone and who have definitely been receiving support from Kosovo.

The mayor of Bujanovac, Stojanca Arsic, later told reporters the deployment of forces is necessary to prevent any further expansion of rebel-controlled territory.

"The arrival here of the president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Vojislav Kostunica, and his team together with the commander of the Yugoslav Army and representatives of the Interior Ministry, as well as the formation here of a line which is a guarantee that the clashes and attacks cannot spread inland [from the security zone along the boundary with Kosovo, shows] that there is total security for all citizens -- Serbs, Albanians, and Roma."

The fighting and threats by the Yugoslav military has prompted some emigration from the area, although there are no reliable figures on how many people have left.

Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic yesterday denied UN figures that 3,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, had already departed. Bujanovac's regional police chief, Colonel Novica Zdravkovic, calls the UN figure "disinformation." He says anyone who has left the area should return.

"If in the past few days some family members here -- Albanians, Serbs -- have left this territory, let me use this opportunity to call on these people to return freely to their homes. We in this area guarantee peace, security, and normal protection of property and persons."

Colonel Zdravkovic's chat with reporters appears to be part of the Serbian Interior Ministry's new look. Zdravkovic showed up dressed in a tailored sports jacket rather than a police uniform. He says his men at the boundary with Kosovo are under orders to behave professionally. Similarly, when RFE/RL reporters crossed from Kosovo into Serbia, Serbian police were polite and even apologetic for the one-hour delay in obtaining permission to proceed into the Presevo Valley.

Monitors of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees -- or UNHCR -- positioned along Kosovo's boundary with Serbia and on Macedonia's border with Yugoslavia, have counted some 3,000 Albanians and Serbs fleeing the Presevo valley since the weekend. But the counting process is far from exact.

One monitor told RFE/RL she estimates a car with a family has an average of seven occupants. But the monitors do not stop vehicles to ask whether occupants are fleeing or merely going to visit relatives.

KFOR troops do ask families whether they are fleeing and compare notes at the end of the day with the monitors. But one UNHCR monitor says families are shy and do not confirm they are fleeing until they are well inside Kosovo. And while UNHCR says last week's violence appears to be the main cause of the increased traffic, state holidays in Kosovo on Tuesday and in Serbia today (Wednesday) and tomorrow may have been a contributing factor.

In any case, the outgoing cars and taxis are filled with families, and those vehicles heading back into Serbia, generally contain mostly men. UNHCR says these men have accompanied their wives and children to safety in Kosovo and are merely returning home.

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