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Macedonia: NATO To Let Serb Troops In Buffer Zone

Brussels/Skopje, 8 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- NATO officials meeting in Brussels today agreed to allow Yugoslav army troops back into an exclusion zone between UN-administered Kosovo and the rest of Serbia. The move revises the June 1999 cease-fire deal between NATO and Belgrade that brought an end to NATO's airstrikes against Yugoslavia.

Under today's agreement, Yugoslav troops would be allowed into the 5-km-wide buffer zone at its southernmost point near Serbia's border with Macedonia. The aim is to cut routes used by ethnic Albanians to supply a militant group that has taken up positions inside Macedonia.

Macedonian's Defense Ministry says that Macedonia troops drove a group of ethnic Albanian gunmen out of the border village of Tanusevac overnight.

NATO's Supreme Headquarters in Europe and Macedonian officials in Skopje are denying reports that U.S. KFOR peacekeepers crossed into Macedonia to help in the operation.

Earlier today, the French AFP news agency reported that as many as 300 U.S. KFOR troops had crossed the border from Kosovo and moved through the Macedonian village of Tanusevac.

But NATO spokesman Colonel Mike Phillips told RFE/RL today that the reports are erroneous.

"They did not cross into Macedonia. Our mandate is inside Kosovo, and so KFOR soldiers do not cross that border. We don't go into Macedonia because we don't have a mandate to operate inside of Macedonia -- with the exception of a (small support staff) operating in Skopje. Unless there is an additional agreement between NATO and Macedonia -- and there is not one at this time -- it would be a violation (of NATO's mandate)."

A spokesman for Macedonia's Defense Ministry, Georgi Trendafilov, says he also thinks reports from the unclearly marked border were incorrect.

"I do not know what number of KFOR troops the report referred to on the other side of the border, but I know that (KFOR troops) are actively engaged in clearing the terrain on the other side of the border (in Kosovo), in the area around Mijak and Debelde. Those are villages in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in (the province of) Kosovo."

A spokesman for Macedonia's Interior Ministry, Stevo Pendarovski, also said the government in Skopje is almost certain that no KFOR troops have crossed from Kosovo to take part in operations inside of Macedonia.

(For more on the situation in Macedonia see our report by Jolyon Naegele: Albanian Refugees Flee Border Fighting)