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Yugoslavia: Less Risk Of Bloodshed In Upcoming Buffer-Zone Deployment

Ethnic Albanian fighters in the demilitarized zone between Kosovo and southern Serbia's Presevo Valley have been surrendering to KFOR peacekeepers ahead of a massive Yugoslav army deployment Thursday (24 May). But some of the extremists may be filtering into northern Macedonia to fight government forces there. RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz examines the latest developments in the sensitive border region.

Prague, 23 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In the buffer zone between Kosovo and southern Serbia's Presevo Valley, the potential for a widespread battle appears to have been defused ahead of a Yugoslav army deployment planned for 24 May.

But officials in Skopje say some ethnic Albanian fighters who have left the sensitive buffer zone have been filtering into northern Macedonia to fight government troops there.

An estimated 2,000 Yugoslav army troops and 1,500 Serb police are poised to enter the buffer zone's sensitive Sector B tomorrow, a 35-by-5-kilometer strip of land separating Kosovo from Serbia's southern Presevo Valley.

A ban on both KFOR and Yugoslav army troops in the demilitarized zone during the last two years has left a power vacuum that has allowed the area to become a safe haven for ethnic Albanian extremists.

Serb leaders are not ruling out the possibility of some skirmishes when their troops move into Sector B tomorrow.

But Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic, one of the authors of Belgrade's peace plan for the region, says he doesn't expect widespread resistance by the militants.

"I have been around Presevo and this part of the buffer zone recently. The preparations for our deployment are continuing without any problems. We have promises from ethnic Albanian militant leaders [that they will not fight] and I expect they will honor their signatures."

Covic was referring to a NATO-brokered agreement that was signed on Monday by three of the four main ethnic Albanian commanders in the Presevo Valley area.

The chief commander, Shefket Musliu, said in a signed declaration that the militants would be demilitarized, demobilized, and disbanded.

Only one commander, Muhamet Xhemajli, has said he will not honor the agreement. Xhemajli said early this week that he will stay to defend his home village of Muhovac, which is near the strategic peak of Sveti Ilija only a few hundred meters east of Kosovo's administrative border with Serbia proper.

Despite Xhemajli's defiant statements, at least 40 of his men have surrendered to KFOR peacekeepers in Kosovo since 21 May.

Serbian officials say Xhemajli was detained yesterday by KFOR as he tried to cross into Kosovo. But the NATO-led peacekeeping mission has not confirmed that report.

Meanwhile, scores of other ethnic Albanian fighters in the buffer zone have been handing over their uniforms and weapons at KFOR border checkpoints.

Some told Western reporters that it would be suicidal to try to resist the vastly superior Yugoslav army without the benefit of the buffer zone as a safe haven.

Others say they have accomplished their goal of bringing international attention to the plight of ordinary ethnic Albanians in the Presevo Valley. They claim success in fostering an internationally backed peace plan for the region.

For its part, KFOR has amassed piles of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and machine guns at their checkpoints on the western edge of the buffer zone. They've also registered dozens of disarmed militants for an amnesty that has been offered by both Belgrade and NATO. That amnesty offer expires at midnight tonight.

NATO envoy Shawn Sullivan says the amnesty program and other confidence-building measures have minimized the risk of further bloodshed in southern Serbia.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said yesterday that he is pleased with the success of the demilitarization campaign.

European Union foreign policy and security chief Javier Solana also has welcomed the progress toward a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Riza Halimi, the ethnic Albanian mayor of the town of Presevo, says most of southern Serbia's ethnic Albanian population is satisfied with efforts to avert a major battle tomorrow.

"We are satisfied with this kind of conclusion to the situation. There will be new circumstances after the return of Yugoslav troops in the buffer zone and a larger role for international institutions. We have successful cooperation with KFOR and the United Nations Mission in Kosovo. And therefore, we have the possibility to reach a peaceful resolution to the crisis in southern Serbia."

Confidence-building measures between Belgrade and the ethnic Albanians -- steps urged by NATO as a condition for Yugoslav deployments back into the buffer zone -- have been moving forward rapidly during the last week.

Training has begun for a multiethnic police force in southern Serbia that eventually will include 60 ethnic Albanians and work together with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The French news agency AFP reports that militant leaders have been negotiating for some of their fighters to obtain posts in the new police force.

On 18 May, ethnic Albanian fighters pulled out of the hills surrounding two buffer-zone villages, Lucane and Turija. The Yugoslav army responded by abandoning two control posts on the outskirts of those villages.

Extremist leaders also have agreed to abandon their buffer-zone headquarters at the village of Konculj.

But a government spokesman in the southern Serbian town of Bujanovac says a group of ethnic Albanian militants opened fire last night on nearby Yugoslav troops. Spokesman Ljubomir Podunavac said the shootings occurred as an advance guard of about 100 Yugoslav soldiers moved into the buffer zone ahead of tomorrow's main deployment.

Macedonian government officials say the evacuation of ethnic Albanian fighters from the buffer zone has put more pressure on their forces.

Macedonian Defense Ministry spokesman Gjeorgji Trendafilov told RFE/RL yesterday that some militants who recently fled southern Serbia have managed to filter into Macedonia to join a fight against government troops.

Since yesterday, there has been renewed fighting between Macedonian troops and ethnic Albanian extremists in the hills overlooking the northwestern Macedonian city of Tetovo. Macedonian troops also are battling extremists in a series of villages within 10 kilometers of the point where the borders of Kosovo, Serbia proper, and Macedonia meet.

RFE/RL correspondents in Macedonia have confirmed that some ethnic Albanian fighters who have been in southern Serbia are from villages in northern Macedonia.