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Yugoslavia: Opinions Divided In Kosovo About NATO Troops

By Irena Lagunina

Pristina, 18 February 1999 (RFE/RL) - Opinions in Kosovo about the possible deployment of NATO peacekeeping troops in the troubled Serbian province are -- not unexpectedly -- neatly divided between the Serbian and ethnic Albanian communities.

The United States is insisting that NATO troops be sent into Kosovo to keep the peace should an accord be reached at talks now underway at the Rambouillet chateau outside Paris.

The western powers have given the Serbian and ethnic Albanian delegations at those talks until noon on Saturday to reach an agreement.

Belgrade, however, is objecting to the idea of NATO peacekeeping troops in Kosovo should a deal be reached. But the U.S. government has warned Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that Belgrade will face "swift and severe" consequences if it persists in its objections to such a force.

On the other hand, the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) is demanding that the U.S. and NATO formally guarantee any peace deal reached at Rambouillet.

Our correspondent in Kosovo spoke to people on both sides of the conflict about their thoughts on the possible deployment of NATO soldiers in their midst.

Burhan Kavaja is the former general director of the coal mining enterprise Stari Trg in Kosovo's Trepca mining region. He lost his job following a 1989 mine strike which Belgrade declared a separatist action.

Kavaja -- an ethnic Albanian -- says many mines are closed now because of fighting between Serb police and members of the UCK.

Kavaja says he believes the presence of NATO troops in the region would create a positive atmosphere that would help to revitalize the province's troubled mining industry.

He told RFE/RL: "I think it could work because we do not expect that NATO troops will engage themseloves in activities they have no mandate for. They will be there to protect peace and safeguard the property of people be they Serb, Albanian or Roma according to international law."

Another ethnic Albanian, Erzan, used to represent the Yugoslav firm Yurhor in the Kosovar capital, Pristina. The company produces and sells canned food. Erzan says he lost his job eight months ago after Serbian authorities banned Yurhor�s operations in Kosovo.

Erzan said he doesn't believe NATO troops in Kosovo would help him get his job back, but he said he would feel much better -- both psychologically and physically -- knowing they were there.

Our correspondent says ethnic Albanians living in small villages outside of the capital seem more enthusiastic about the possibility of a NATO peacekeeping presence in Kosovo. She says city residents still appear fearful of the potential for renewed fighting, despite NATO troops.

Our correspondent says both Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are so frightened that it is impossible to find someone who will express an opinion outside the mainstream.

In the village of Gracanica, near Pristina, the Serb houses are poor and old. Young people left the village to seek their fortunes in Pristina or in Belgrade. The people who still live in Gracanica prefer not to talk politics.

There is a belief among many politically minded Serb residents of Pristina that Milosevic has already agreed to a NATO presence in Kosovo, that he agreed to such a presence even before talks began earlier this month at Rambouillet -- or even before the October agreement negotiated by U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke.

They say Milosevic is only trying now to show the world that he is under pressure.

A Serb political leader who believes this is true is Dusan Ristic, a top official in the Democratic Movement of Serbian Resistance.

Ristic calls the possibility of a NATO presence in Kosovo an "occupation" and an "aggression of the international community." He said Serbia is an independent state and has a right to solve problems within its borders on its own.

He said the presence of NATO troops in Kosovo would mean "there will be forces to help the Albanian separatists." He said Serbia will not consider any peace agreement that dictates the presence of NATO troops on its soil.

The editor-in-chief of the Serbian Media Center, Milivoje Mihajovic, thinks the Serbian delegation at Rambouillet will not permit the idea of NATO troops in Kosovo. He said all previous government policies have been against such a plan.

Whatever happens, Mihajovic says, Serbs in Kosovo will look to Belgrade to determine how to treat the idea of NATO soldiers in Kosovo.

If the authorities decide to resist NATO, Mihajovic said, then Serbs in Kosovo will resist. If the decision is taken to let NATO into Kosovo, Serbs in Kosovo will act however Belgrade wants them to act.

It's possible, he said, that Serbs might even cooperate with NATO.