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NATO: Yugoslav Officials Discuss Presevo Valley

Brussels, 15 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Yugoslav officials met today with NATO ambassadors in Brussels to discuss ways of ending violence between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Serbia's Presevo Valley.

Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic presented NATO with a proposal -- known as the Covic plan -- which asks, among other things, for a reduction or elimination of a five-kilometer-wide "ground safety zone" which ethnic Albanian extremists use as their base.

After the meeting, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said he strongly welcomed Belgrade's initiative but said it was too early to speak of long-term solutions to the problem.

"The Belgrade proposals are complex and they will require a great deal of study. Nobody should underestimate the difficulties involved, and we must be realistic about how long it will take to reach a solution. The problems caused over 40 years cannot be solved in four months."

The Presevo Valley, in southernmost Serbia along the Kosovo border, is home to around 70,000 ethnic Albanians. The area was a part of Kosovo until shortly after World War II when it was redesignated. The area has seen sporadic incidents of violence between ethnic Albanian extremists and Serbian forces since late 1999. Several people on both sides have been killed.

Ethnic Albanian fighters have set up safe havens at the southern end of the 200-kilometer long and five-kilometer-wide ground safety zone between Kosovo and Serbia. KFOR has barred the Yugoslav army from entering the zone, although lightly-armed police patrols are permitted.

The Covic plan, as presented today, contains a number of demands addressed at NATO that are aimed at gradually restoring Serbian control over the security zone between Serbia and Kosovo, and putting a stop to the Albanian insurgency in the Presevo Valley.

It also proposes a series of socio-economic measures to improve gradually the lives of ethnic Albanians in area, promising them full and equitable integration into Serbia's political and economic institutions.

Covic made it clear today the plan rests on the assumption, which he said was "unquestioned by NATO," that while ethnic Albanians will be party to negotiating an eventual solution, Serbia would retain full sovereignty over the Presevo Valley.

"As far as the plan or program is concerned, we are open and ready to any additions to the program and we will certainly have in mind the proposals of the ethnic Albanian community. But what cannot be denied in this process is that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Republic of Serbia, there will be no change of borders, no special status, no autonomy."

Covic confirmed Serbia has asked NATO to sanction the gradual phasing out of the security zone. He said Yugoslavia would guarantee that in dealing with the ethnic Albanian insurgents, its security forces would not resort to "brutal or massive" use of military force.

NATO's Robertson said the military alliance was ready to contemplate changes in the status of the zone as long as it did not lead to a security vacuum or an increase in violence, warning that premature steps in that direction could prove counterproductive.

Robertson said KFOR had strengthened its presence along the boundary and is cutting the supply links between Kosovo and the armed rebels in the Presevo Valley. He said more than 100 people have been arrested in the vicinity of the boundary this year.

Robertson said the only basis for long-term peace and stability would be an agreement that was negotiated and agreed to by all sides. Belgrade has ruled out negotiating with insurgents, whom they call "terrorists."

As a start, Robertson said the Yugoslav government should launch a series of confidence-building measures. He said Yugoslavia should remove the so-called Pristina Corps from Presevo. The Pristina Corps of the Yugoslav Army took part in ethnic cleansing operations in Kosovo in 1998-99 and its presence in Presevo is greatly resented by the local Albanians.