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Yugoslavia: Kosovo Buffer Zone Becomes Sensitive Issue

The NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo has approved a detailed plan for Yugoslav forces to move into the remainder of a demilitarized zone bordering the province. But the UN refugee agency warns there could be an exodus of up to 20,000 ethnic Albanians from southern Serbia if the sensitive handover on 24 May isn't conducted properly. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz takes a closer look at the situation in the ground exclusion zone between Kosovo and Serbia proper.

Prague, 21 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- NATO and Belgrade yesterday finalized plans for Yugoslav troops to return to a buffer zone along Kosovo's eastern border.

The Yugoslav army plans on 24 May to move some 2,000 soldiers into an area listed on NATO military maps as "Sector B." The strip of land -- about 35 kilometers long and five kilometers wide -- is the last remaining section of a demilitarized zone that was set up two years ago when NATO troops entered Kosovo.

Since then, both KFOR peacekeepers and the Yugoslav army have been banned from the buffer zone. Sector B has fallen under the control of ethnic Albanian militants who have been using it as a safe haven and mustering point for attacks on security forces in southern Serbia's Presevo Valley.

The threat to regional stability posed by ethnic Albanian fighters in southern Serbia and in Macedonia has led NATO to re-evaluate the implications of maintaining a power vacuum on Kosovo's borders. Two months ago, NATO started to allow the gradual return of Yugoslav troops into parts of the zone.

U.S. General Kenneth Quinlan, who leads American KFOR troops, said yesterday that the handover of Sector B could be the most dangerous operation KFOR has undertaken since entering Kosovo.

In a bid to avoid violence in the sensitive sector, NATO and Belgrade have both offered an amnesty to militants who lay down their weapons before the 24 May deployment.

KFOR peacekeepers also have been reinforcing the Kosovo side of the border to prevent extremist violence from spilling into the UN-administered province.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson last week demanded that returning Yugoslav troops must respect human rights and avoid any excessive use of force.

"Two-thirds of the zone have already been released without any major difficulties. The remaining part overlaps with the Presevo Valley, where NATO and the European Union have in recent months been engaged in facilitating a political dialogue. It's clear that the release of this part of the zone will require considerable restraint on both sides and a number of confidence-building measures by Belgrade -- notably an amnesty for those who lay down their arms."

Some confidence-building measures between Belgrade and ethnic Albanian fighters have been going well. On 18 May, the fighters pulled out of the hills surrounding two buffer-zone villages -- Lucane and Turija. Yugoslav forces responded by abandoning two control posts on the outskirts of the villages.

Militant leader Ridvan Cazimi says the withdrawals from Lucane and Turija could serve as a model for peaceful and political ways to defuse the crisis.

Extremist leaders also have reportedly agreed to abandon their buffer-zone headquarters at the village of Konculj. A demilitarization agreement was expected to be signed as early as today by international negotiators and militant leaders at Konculj.

The French news agency AFP reports there also have been negotiations on allowing some militants to be among 60 ethnic Albanian officers selected for a new multiethnic police force. Belgrade has promised to work with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to establish the multiethnic force in southern Serbia.

The willingness of some militant leaders to disarm comes amid reports by Western correspondents in the buffer zone that the morale of their fighters has been falling since NATO last week announced the planned handover of Sector B.

The extremists also were stunned last week in a battle for the southern Serbian village of Oraovica -- just outside the buffer zone. Outnumbered by Yugoslav troops with superior weapons, training, and experience, at least 14 ethnic Albanian fighters were killed at Oraovica and another 80 were captured.

KFOR officials say nearly 200 fighters have since crossed into Kosovo to give themselves up. Many more are thought to have discarded their guerrilla uniforms for civilian clothes and quietly returned to their homes in the Presevo Valley.

But some ethnic Albanian commanders say they will stay in the buffer zone to fight on 24 May. Among them is renegade commander Muhamet Xhemaili, who resigned last month as the guerrillas' chief of staff in protest of the peace deal.

Xhemaili and his loyal forces control the area around the strategic peak of Sveti Ilija from his village base of Muhovac. Xhemaili was born in the village -- which is just a few hundred meters from Kosovo's administrative border. He has vowed not to leave his land. Xhemaili was not among the guerrilla commanders meeting with international negotiators at Konculj today.

General Ninoslav Krstic, the commander of Yugoslav troops in southern Serbia, told RFE/RL yesterday that the militants would be foolish to try to fight against the army deployment on 24 May.

"I think they don't have any reason to do that. There is an amnesty and there are efforts to provide peace and security for citizens in that area. I don't see why they wouldn't [agree to demilitarize the buffer zone] unless they were people who are not normal."

But Eric Morris, the special envoy in the Balkans for the United Nations refugee agency, or UNHCR, says he doubts that enough confidence-building measures have been taken to reassure the ethnic Albanian population in the Presevo Valley.

Morris and his colleagues in the UNHCR are warning of an exodus of up to 20,000 ethnic Albanian civilians from southern Serbia if the 24 May operation deteriorates into a significant armed conflict.

Morris said ordinary Albanians in the Presevo Valley fear Serb forces because of a reputation for brutality they acquired during the wars in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo.