NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson's announcement yesterday that the alliance will gradually reduce the size of the buffer zone along Serbia's boundary with NATO-occupied Kosovo province received a mixed reception. Unsurprisingly, Yugoslav officials welcomed the move and ethnic Albanians expressed concern with what it portends for Kosovo's security. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that Albanian insurgents in the zone itself responded noisily to NATO's decision.
Prague, 28 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The ethnically mixed town of Bujanovac reverberated with mortar fire this morning as ethnic Albanian insurgents in two nearby villages on the edge of the buffer zone expressed their anger.
NATO established the zone in agreement with Yugoslav military commanders at the conclusion of 78 days of air strikes against Yugoslavia in June 1999. The Yugoslav military and heavy weapons are barred from entering the five-kilometer-wide zone.
Lightly armed Serb police are allowed to patrol the zone. But because of the presence in the zone of several hundred heavily armed Albanian insurgents of the 13-month-old Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, such patrols are quite risky.
Under the 1999 accord, NATO-led KFOR is not permitted to enter the buffer zone, but monitors it from the boundary between Kosovo and Serbia proper
After a meeting in Brussels yesterday of alliance foreign ministers, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson suggested that the insurgents have gone too far. He told reporters that NATO would allow its former adversaries, the Yugoslav Army and the Serbian Interior Ministry Police, to gradually re-enter the zone.
"It is also unacceptable for the ground safety zone to be used as some kind of safe haven for extremists, so we are preparing for a phased and conditioned reduction of the ground safety zone. We're still working out the details of how this will be done but the commander of KFOR will retain his authority over the zone."
Robertson urged "the Serb authorities to move fast to put in place confidence building measures so that all ethnic groups in southern Serbia can believe that their voice is heard and that their interests are reflected."
Authorities in Belgrade welcomed Robertson's remarks. Yugoslav Interior Minister Zoran Zivkovic said he wanted more details but was hopeful:
"We have to await an explanation of what this means -- when the phased withdrawal would begin and under what conditions. The positions of member states in the NATO pact differ on what has to be done. One of them says that the 95 kilometers [sector from the Macedonian border northwards past Medvedja], which now present problems, will be regarded as under a special regime, while the remaining 100 kilometers will be completely void of any KFOR control."
Zivkovic told RFE/RL last night NATO's decision means the alliance has accepted Belgrade's initiatives concerning the ground safety zone. It is, in his words, a "conditional victory" for the Yugoslav government's policies of the last four months.
"What happened today is a good thing since our initiatives have now been accepted regarding the ground safety zone, for the NATO pact this is not a security zone but rather the most dangerous place in Europe since it is a buffer where there are terrorists, who are very difficult to track down."
In the town of Bujanovac -- within sight of the zone -- Milovan Cagaric, Yugoslav defense ministry secretary, was elated by the news from Brussels.
"With this the way is open. It is the first step toward solving this problem peacefully in a way that we have been pleading for."
In Kosovo's capital Pristina today, Richard Heffer, a spokesman for the KFOR command, said the peacekeeping force must still work out the details and conditions of the withdrawal.
"We will plan along NATO guidelines on how the reduction of the ground safety zone should be undertaken. Obviously any final decision on the reduction of the ground safety zone rests with NATO. At this point it would be premature for us to discuss what advice we will proffer to NATO."
The spokesman said that KFOR commander General Carlo Cabigioso "will continue to exercise overall authority for the buffer zone as foreseen in the [June 1999 Kumanovo] Military-Technical Agreement [between NATO and Yugoslavia], including the entry and disposition of Yugoslav Army and Interior Ministry police forces.".
Kosovar Albanian leaders greeted Robertson's announcement with skepticism.
Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of the largest political party in the province -- the Democratic League of Kosovo -- says he is concerned:
"We are asking NATO to be very careful and to be present in the control zone. At the same time, we are calling for the start of a dialogue with the Albanian side but with international mediation, so that all the elements [Serbs and Albanians] will be included to find a solution for the Presevo Valley."
Rugova went on to say that his group is asking NATO to reconsider its decision because it poses a threat to Kosovo's security. He added that NATO must know that there are individuals in the Yugoslav military who are interested in the situation deteriorating into war.
The head of the opposition Democratic Party of Kosovo, former insurgent commander Hashim Thaci, told reporters in Pristina that all Albanian political parties in Kosovo's transitional council agreed today to his proposal to ask NATO to increase rather than decrease the size of the buffer zone.
"Yesterday's decision by NATO is a matter of concern to the citizens of Kosovo. Permitting the Yugoslav forces who committed genocide in Kosovo up to Kosovo's border will reflect negatively on the whole situation in Kosovo and on the region as a whole."
It remains to be seen whether Yugoslav and Serb security forces will be able to conduct a non-violent mopping-up operation in the buffer zone. That's why NATO's withdrawal will be gradual and phased.