Serbia's Presevo Valley this week has been the site of the most intense fighting between Yugoslav forces and ethnic Albanian extremists since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999. A government offensive in the valley followed NATO's decision on 14 May to allow Yugoslav troops into the last remaining sector of a buffer zone between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia.
Prague, 16 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Yugoslav military leaders say they have won a critical victory in their battle against ethnic Albanian militants in southern Serbia's Presevo Valley.
After a fierce two-day battle at Oraovica, security forces yesterday captured the village from guerilla fighters who had concentrated there during the weekend.
Oraovica is about one kilometer from the town of Presevo and lies just outside of a five-kilometer-wide buffer zone that separates the Presevo Valley from Kosovo. Until yesterday, the village had been the last militant stronghold within southern Serbia that lies outside of the buffer zone.
Serbian Interior Ministry Colonel Goran Radosavljevic told RFE/RL that the siege of Oraovica represents a tactical victory for Belgrade.
"Everything is fine. The police forces and the army have put the village under control and everything is calm now [in Oraovica]. Among the police and the army there are no casualties or wounded people. And the village is under our complete control."
Our correspondent in southern Serbia reports today that government forces have discovered the bodies of 20 ethnic Albanian fighters in and around Oraovica. Colonel General Ninoslav Krstic, the commander of the Yugoslav forces that pushed the militants out of the village, said today that 14 extremists were killed and eight were wounded in the battle.
Radosavljevic says another 80 suspected militants were captured yesterday while trying to retreat from the village in civilian clothes. He said all are being interrogated today.
Western reporters who entered Oraovica yesterday report seeing numerous uniforms abandoned by the Albanian fighters -- some of them bloodied -- together with assault rifles and ammunition that was left behind during the hurried retreat.
A spokesman for the Albanian fighters says the retreat was ordered by a local commander who calls himself "Spetimi."
The spokesman, who goes by the name of Profi, said most of the militants fled to other positions within southern Serbia just outside of the buffer zone.
Profi denied Belgrade's claim that 20 ethnic Albanian fighters were killed at Oraovica. He said only two fighters died in the battle.
Among the hundreds of ethnic Albanian refugees who have fled into Kosovo to escape the recent fighting, many told reporters they did not think Yugoslav forces were using excessive or indiscriminant force.
Riza Halimi, the ethnic Albanian mayor of nearby Presevo, also said that the government's assault on Oraovica appears to have been conducted in a correct manner.
The issue is critical to accelerating the entry of Yugoslav troops into the last remaining section of the buffer zone -- Sector B -- between Kosovo and the Presevo Valley, now held by the Albanian fighters.
NATO has given Belgrade permission to enter the sensitive Sector B on Wednesday of next week. But the deployment is still subject to final approval by the alliance of Belgrade's precise plans.
Correspondents in Brussels say the excessive use of force at Oraovica by government troops could have led NATO to reverse its approval for the deployments.
In Pristina today, a statement by the commander of the KFOR peacekeepers offers ethnic Albanian extremists a final chance to retreat from the Presevo Valley before the Yugoslav deployment into Sector B.
Lieutenant General Thorstein Skiaker said militants who surrender before the May 24 deployment date will not be punished unless they are found guilty of serious crimes. Skiaker said any fighters trying to cross into Kosovo after May 24 will be detained.
Skiaker also said 45 militants who crossed into Kosovo from Sector B of the buffer zone yesterday had surrendered to KFOR.
The buffer zone was created under the June 1999 cease-fire agreement between NATO and Belgrade that ended Western airstrikes on Yugoslavia and allowed the deployment of KFOR peacekeepers in Kosovo.
Under the terms of that agreement, the buffer zone has been off limits to KFOR as well as to heavily armed Yugoslav troops.
But the power vacuum in the buffer zone has allowed ethnic Albanian extremists to roam freely in the area. They have been using it as both a safe haven and a mustering point for their operations within the Presevo Valley.
NATO began allowing Yugoslav forces back into parts of the buffer zone in March, when it became clear that militants also were using the area as a supply route for operations in Macedonia a few kilometers to the south.