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Yugoslavia: OSCE Head In Kosovo To Ease Tensions

Prague, 12 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Norway's Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), arrived in Kosovo today amid heightening tension in the Serb province.

The latest crisis centers on last week's capture by the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) of eight Yugoslav army soldiers. The soldiers were captured after they had strayed into territory held by the UCK. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has called the seizure a "criminal act" and has threatened to initiate a major crackdown on ethnic Albanians unless the soldiers are released.

The tension increased yesterday after Enver Maloku, head of the Kosovo Information Center and a close aide to ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, was fatally shot by unknown assailants in Kosovo's provincial capital Pristina.

Also yesterday, Serb police found the body of Rustem Sadrija, an ethnic Albanian shot dead in the western part of the province.

Vollebaek met yesterday with Milosevic in Belgrade and later warned that the crisis could lead to a new outburst of violence unless the UCK releases the soldiers immediately. He condemned their capture as a terrorist action.

"I have no problem in condemning terrorist attacks wherever they take place, also in Kosovo. We have stated time and again that we cannot accept terrorist attacks or terrorist activities."

But Vollebaek also said that Milosevic had agreed to "extend the deadline" to give time to the OSCE's Kosovo Verification Mission to negotiate a release. Heinz Nitsch, spokesman for the mission, has said that the talks with the UCK were continuing. He has said that the captured soldiers have been well-treated.

Yesterday, UCK representative Bardhy Mahmuti said in Geneva that the rebels plan to release some of the soldiers. He added that he expected Yugoslav authorities to release some of the ethnic Albanians they hold in return. He said the Serbs were holding about 2,000 ethnic Albanian civilians and nine separatist fighters.

In talks in Kosovo today, Vollebaek is certain to press ethnic Albanian leaders to release the soldiers to defuse the crisis. But he faces a very delicate and volatile situation.

Yesterday, the head of the Yugoslav army, General Dragoljub Ojdanic, arrived in Pristina and said in a statement that his troops had been put on a high level of alert.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Serbs were reported to have gathered in Pristina to complain that they had been abandoned by the Yugoslav government. But their leader, Mimcilo Trajkovic, insisted they should stick to peaceful methods. Western correspondents (Reuters) quoted him saying "We have nowhere to go and we don't want to leave Kosovo."

The current tensions follow an October agreement by Milosevic to end a crackdown against the majority ethnic-Albanians in Kosovo. The agreement came only after threatened NATO airstrikes. Hundreds of people were killed in the months-long crackdown, which also forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.