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Yugoslavia: Smooth Start For Advance Into Kosovo Buffer Zone

  • Ron Synovitz

Thousands of Yugoslav troops today are being deployed in the last remaining sector of a buffer zone that separates Kosovo from the rest of Serbia. RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz examines the situation on the ground in the narrow strip of land between the UN-administered province and southern Serbia's Presevo Valley.

Prague, 24 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The deployment of Yugoslav security forces into the last remaining part of a demilitarized zone between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia began smoothly this morning.

Thousands of government troops began fanning out into the northern and southern parts of the 35-by-five-kilometer strip of land at about 0800 (Prague and local time). Under Belgrade's plans, the deployment is due to be completed by 2 June.

The deployment area is known on NATO's strategic maps as "Sector B" of a buffer zone set up in June 1999 to separate KFOR peacekeepers and Yugoslav forces. Sector B separates southeastern Kosovo from southern Serbia's Presevo Valley.

With both KFOR and heavily armed Yugoslav troops banned from entering the buffer zone, ethnic Albanian extremists took advantage of the power vacuum during the last 18 months to use Sector B as a staging point for attacks against government forces in the Presevo Valley.

But the ouster of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic last autumn has dramatically altered relations between Belgrade and NATO. Amid fears that the ethnic Albanian insurgency could threaten regional stability in the Balkans, NATO has been gradually allowing Yugoslav troops back into the buffer zone during the last few months.

From the southern Serbian town of Bujanovac, RFE/RL correspondent Radoman Iric reports that that there have not been any major clashes today between ethnic Albanian extremists and the Yugoslav forces that are now moving into Sector B.

"The first thing we can say from Bujanovac is that the operation of Yugoslav security forces that are entering Sector B of the buffer zone is going according to plan. They are entering two out of the three parts of Sector B. There have been no incidents [so far during the morning], but there very well could have been [some casualties among the Yugoslav troops]."

Our correspondent reports that Yugoslav troops have been advancing cautiously after discovering mines and booby traps -- particularly in the northernmost part of Sector B. Iric says most of the mines have been discovered on roads leading to Sveti Ilija -- a strategic height within a few hundred meters of Kosovo's administrative boundary.

"We should say that there might have been incidents on the road between Sveti Ilija and [the village of] Djordjevac because they have discovered two antitank mines on that road and seven other types of land mines. Also, on the road between Sveti Ilija and Topovska Mahala, they have discovered six antitank mines."

Sveti Ilija overlooks Muhovac -- the home village of a renegade ethnic Albanian commander named Muhamet Xhemajli who has refused to endorse a disarmament agreement signed by other extremist commanders earlier this week. A KFOR spokesman in Pristina, British squadron leader Roy Brown, told RFE/RL today that it appears likely the mines were laid by Xhemajli's fighters.

Brown denied media reports in Belgrade that Xhemajli was detained earlier this week by KFOR peacekeepers while trying to cross into Kosovo. Brown also told RFE/RL that Xhemajli has not applied for an amnesty that was being offered to ethnic Albanian fighters who disarmed before midnight last night.

"Muhamet Xhemajli is the renegade of the [ethnic Albanian] leaders and he is the one individual who has not agreed to lay down arms. We do not have him. He's not been arrested by KFOR, nor was he processed under our screen-and-release policy. We don't actually know where he is, other than to say that I did see [an unconfirmed] press article this morning [in Pristina] that claimed he gave an interview to an Albanian journalist from within Kosovo sometime yesterday." According to Brown, there were some minor incidents in the hours just before the Yugoslav deployment began this morning.

"There was an antitank mine that exploded close to [the town of] Presevo this morning at about 0700 hours, and there were some minor skirmishes in the ground safety zone overnight. However, with a total of some 450 ethnic Albanian fighters already having handed themselves and their weapons in to KFOR -- plus those that have given themselves up to the Yugoslav forces or simply gone home -- we're not anticipating significant resistance."

General Ninoslav Krstic, the commander of the Yugoslav task force in southern Serbia, has confirmed that the deployment into the northern part of Sector B has been slowed because engineers must conduct mine-clearing operations.

But General Krstic said his troops did not suffer any injuries during the morning. The general also said this afternoon that he considers the deployment a success so far.

"We are at a distance of about one kilometer from the administrative border of Kosovo, and I hope that we will be there by the end of the day."

Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic, one of the authors of Belgrade's peace plan for the region, is also traveling with Yugoslav army generals into the northernmost part of Sector B today.

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