The commander of NATO-led peacekeeping forces in Kosovo and Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic today initialed an agreement on gradually reducing the size of the ground security zone along Serbia's boundary with Kosovo. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Pristina that the accord will allow Yugoslav troops to patrol the zone near the Macedonian border which ethnic Albanian insurgents have been using as a safe haven.
Pristina, 12 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- KFOR commander General Carlo Cabigiosu says today's agreement with the Serbian government will allow for Serbian forces to re-enter part of the KFOR-imposed ground security zone, buffering Serbia from Kosovo, in a matter of days.
Cabigiosu made the remarks today after talks with Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic at Merdare, on the boundary between Kosovo and Serbia.
The KFOR commander says the deployment would initially cover an area five kilometers by five kilometers at the southern end of the zone on Serbian territory, where the borders of Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia converge.
Cabigiosu says Serbian forces will inform KFOR of their deployment plans before they enter the area. He says "the important condition is to make sure that the local population has nothing to be afraid of." And he says he is sure the Serb forces will be fair.
Covic called the signing "a historic day." He says the army and police will not abuse NATO's trust and "will do everything necessary to solve the problem peacefully."
Belgrade, until now, has been prohibited from deploying heavy armor and munitions in the zone, which was created under the cease-fire deal between NATO and Belgrade in June 1999. The five-kilometer-wide ground security zone, increasingly, has been used as a safe haven by ethnic Albanian insurgents active along the border.
The accord was initially signed without a corresponding cease-fire agreement with the ethnic Albanian rebels, but shortly afterward NATO officials said they had brokered a temporary cease-fire with the rebels until 19 March.
The insurgents of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac (known by the initials UCPMB), in Serbia's Presevo Valley, over the weekend rejected the proposed accord on gradually reducing the size of the zone.
As many as 2,000 rebels are believed to be operating in the zone, moving men and weapons to hot spots in the area. In recent weeks, ethnic Albanian rebels some 30 kilometers to the southwest along Macedonia's border with Kosovo have seized villages and battled with Macedonian security forces, allegedly in a bid to win equal rights for Macedonia's large Albanian minority.
Over the weekend NATO envoy Peter Feith of the Netherlands shuttled between Belgrade, the southern Serbian town of Bujanovac, and the nearby rebel stronghold at Konculj in the buffer zone. Feith's aim was to overcome differences and reach a cease-fire enabling the entry of the Yugoslav army into the zone.
However, the UCPMB's supreme commander, Shefket Musliu, declined to sign the cease-fire and asked for more time for additional consultations. The rebels do not want Yugoslav forces to enter a small Albanian-inhabited village at the southern end of the zone, Trnava/Ternava, which is southwest of Presevo.
Feith said he would only meet the ethnic Albanian rebels again "when they are ready for further contacts."
A UCPMB commander, who goes by the name Vullnet, told reporters in Konculj over the weekend that "the Serbs can sign what they want, but it won't be recognized as long as the UCPMB haven't signed it."
The initialing of the accord was expected Saturday(10 March) and then Sunday (11 March) but news of the signing came only at midday today (12 March) at a British KFOR base near Podujevo in Kosovo.
As recently as yesterday, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic expressed reservations about the deal as far as it pertains to the first stage, the border zone where Macedonia, Kosovo, and Serbia meet.
"Our forces will be there in the crossfire. On the one side, we will have Albanians from Kosovo and on the other side, we will have Albanians from Macedonia. Both are extremists, and we think this problem could be called a hot potato. This hot potato should be taken by KFOR and Macedonian security forces."
Djindjic accused the insurgents of exporting terrorism from Kosovo to southern Serbia and he alleged that neither the international community nor political parties of moderate Kosovar Albanians are doing enough to suppress it. But he added that no government can stop a handful of terrorists from crossing the border and planting a bomb.
A KFOR spokesman, British Squadron leader Richard Heffer, speaking to reporters in Pristina today, in effect rejected Djindjic's proposal that KFOR intervene:
"KFOR -- obviously our main task is within Kosovo. So we are concerned about the violence on the borders and the boundaries of Kosovo because this will impinge upon our main task of bringing a safe and secure environment to the people of Kosovo. But obviously it would be wrong of me to speak about matters outside of Kosovo, in other peoples' sovereign areas."
Heffer confirmed that NATO's supreme body, the North Atlantic Council (NAC), had authorized Cabigiosu to allow Yugoslav federal forces into the ground safety zone in what Heffer terms a "controlled, measured and conditional return."
In an interview in the Belgrade daily "Blic" today, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Momcilo Perisic, a former military commander under Slobodan Milosevic, said NATO should, if necessary, bomb ethnic Albanian rebels. Perisic also called on the international community to block financial aid to what he termed "Albanian separatists in Kosovo" and to disarm the rebels.
Meanwhile to the south, pressure is building against the fragile stability of Macedonia. A group of some 200 rebels, dispersed following a series of clashes last week with KFOR and Macedonian forces that forced them to abandon their stronghold at Tanusevci, have moved eastward, that is toward Serbia, along the border with Kosovo, taking the village of Malino and threatening the village of Brest, both in Macedonia.
A spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said in Pristina today some 1,000 refugees have now fled the fighting to Kosovo and nearly 300 just in the past week to the interior of Macedonia.
The rebels in Macedonia, grouped in the National Liberation Army, or UCK, published a list of demands over the weekend. These largely coincide with the demands of the two mainstream Albanian parties in Macedonia. These include neutral international mediation of the conflict, a census to be conducted by an international institution, the right of all inhabitants to Macedonian citizenship, and changes to the constitution that would make Macedonia a state of two constituent nations, Macedonians and Albanians. The rebels warned Macedonia's neighbors, above all Greece and Bulgaria, not to take part in the crisis.
The head of the junior partner in the Macedonian government, the Democratic Party of Albanians, Arben Xhaferi, today urged Macedonia's Albanians to join a peace march tomorrow, as he put it, to show that, "another war in the Balkans cannot be tolerated."
Xhaferi accused the rebels of being extremists and said the violence in Tanusevci "jeopardizes...the entire image of Albanians and threatens their natural alliance with the democratic nations of the West."