The European Union is deploying a small team of monitors in the Presevo Valley of southern Serbia -- the scene of ongoing clashes between Serb security forces and ethnic Albanian insurgents. RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz takes a closer look at why the monitors are there and what they will be doing.
Prague, 23 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- European Union foreign ministers have formally approved the deployment of EU monitors in the tense Presevo Valley of southern Serbia -- the region just to the east of UN-administered Kosovo.
Cristina Gallach, a spokeswoman for the EU's foreign affairs chief Javier Solana, tells RFE/RL that permission for a permanent presence of unarmed EU monitors in the region was granted by the Yugoslav Foreign Ministry after negotiations that began late last year.
Belgrade is hoping the monitors will shed light on the activities of ethnic Albanian insurgents in the area who want the region to become part of Kosovo. The monitors will be watching the activities of both Serbs and ethnic Albanians.
Gallach says a provisional team of EU monitors already has been working in the Presevo Valley for several days and has filed reports to Brussels. She says the reports played a role in a statement yesterday from Brussels that condemned violence by an ethnic Albanian insurgent group in the area.
"The European Union monitoring mission is the only international civilian presence carrying out regular monitoring in the Presevo Valley. Their main task is going to be to gather information, and to build confidence, and to play a role as an early warning [in the case of escalated hostilities between Serbs and ethnic Albanians.] There is no intention, at this point, to undertake a political mediation role [between Serb and ethnic Albanian leaders.]"
Meanwhile, negotiations are continuing on increasing the number of monitors. Gallach says Belgrade has fully agreed to the principle. But she says the EU will keep the teams small and highly mobile -- with fewer than 20 monitors in the Presevo Valley altogether.
Solana announced the deployment of the EU monitors yesterday:
"As you know, there is still tension there. The European Union monitoring mission people will be deployed in the Presevo Valley for research of information. And in the coming days in the negotiations we are about to finish with Belgrade, we'll have the possibility of deploying more people."
While the deployment of monitors is supported by Belgrade, the monitors have also been praised by a leading political group representing ethnic Albanians in the area. Behlul Nasufi, deputy chairman of the Democratic Action Party of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, tells RFE/RL the monitors are the first step in reaching a solution to the problems in the Presevo Valley.
"We are satisfied with this move because the international monitors will have an impact on the tensions. More and more young men are going over to [join the ethnic Albanian insurgents]. I hope the monitors will see and report on the very difficult situation in this area."
Ethnic Albanians form the majority of the population in the Presevo Valley. But the region is completely within the borders of Serbia proper and is administered by Belgrade.
Tensions between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in the area have been on the rise since the end of NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999.
Ethnic Albanian residents have told RFE/RL they have been subjected to brutal treatment from Serb Interior Ministry police since then. But NATO intelligence sources also have confirmed Belgrade's charges that the armed insurgents have been regularly crossing over from Kosovo to carry out attacks against Serb police posts and courthouses.
The ethnic Albanian insurgent group is named after three municipalities in the area. It calls itself the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac -- known by its initials in the Albanian language as the UCPMB.
In addition to fighting for the region's inclusion within Kosovo, the UCPMB says it is defending local Albanians against Serb repression.
But the United Nations Security Council, NATO and the EU have all condemned the UCPMB in recent months as a group that is threatening the region's stability.
After repeated complaints about the UCPMB from Belgrade, NATO also has increased patrols along a five-kilometer buffer zone that separates Kosovo from Serbia. Under the cease-fire agreement between NATO and Belgrade, Serbia is not allowed to deploy troops or heavy weapons within the buffer zone. Belgrade complains that the UCPMB is taking advantage of the zone and has been building up operational bases there that receive regular supplies smuggled from Kosovo.
In an interview with RFE/RL today, Yugoslav Interior Minister Zoran Zilkovic said the situation in Presevo Valley has remained extremely tense since the UCPMB killed four Serb policemen two months ago. He says the UCPMB is maintaining strongholds within the five-km exclusion zone, while Serb police and Yugoslav army forces are deployed along the eastern edge of the buffer zone.
The UCPMB is modeled on the guerilla force that fought Serb rule in Kosovo during the late 1990s -- the Kosovo Liberation Army.
Zilkovic repeated Belgrade's call for NATO to reduce the size of the buffer zone or to eliminate it completely. He says such a move would be enough to end the problems because the UCPMB would not have a safe haven for its bases.
So far, NATO has refused. But Cristina Gallach, Solana's spokeswoman, noted that the EU monitors will have the authority to travel within the buffer zone as well as other parts of the Presevo Valley.