Yugoslav tanks amass near Kosovo

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Yugoslav tanks amass near Kosovo


BUJANOVAC, Yugoslavia (November 26, 2000 3:44 p.m. EST http://www.nandotimes.com) - The Yugoslav army deployed tanks and reinforcements near the NATO-patrolled boundary with Kosovo on Sunday, one day before Yugoslavia's deadline for NATO to crack down on ethnic Albanian militants whose attacks have inflamed the region.

Kosovo is a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's main republic, but it has been under international control since last year and many residents want full independence. In the three-mile buffer zone between central Serbia and Kosovo, attacks by independence-minded militants last week left at least four Serb policemen dead.

Yugoslav authorities set a Monday afternoon deadline for NATO to clear out the militants from the boundary region. They have threatened to launch counterattacks after the deadline passes.

In Kosovo, the local television station reported that one ethnic Albanian fighter was wounded in the contested area Sunday but gave no further details. The ethnic Albanians declared their own, unilateral cease-fire Friday, but it expires at midnight Sunday.

The crisis erupted last week when militants believed to be operating from heavily ethnic Albanian Kosovo killed the Serb policemen and seized key positions just across the boundary from the NATO-patrolled province.

Their actions provoked a major crisis for the new government of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, which took power last month after the collapse of Slobodan Milosevic. The offensive could undermine Kostunica's rule by portraying him as incapable of dealing with ethnic Albanian extremists. However, if Serb police fight back with massive force, they risk a serious incident with NATO.

The crisis also has cast doubt on NATO's ability to control Kosovo, which the Yugoslav authorities believe was used as a staging area for the ethnic Albanian attacks.

The attacks were carried out by the so-called "Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac." The rebels want to drive Serb forces from the Presevo Valley, the adjacent Serb region, and unite it with Kosovo.

Although the area has a substantial ethnic Albanian population, the valley was not considered part of Kosovo and therefore was not included in the June 1999 agreement which sent NATO peacekeepers into the province.

On Sunday, Yugoslav army T55 battle tanks and armored personnel carriers could be seen maneuvering near the buffer zone separating Kosovo from the rest of Serbia. The reinforcements were kept away from the zone under terms of a June 1999 agreement between NATO and the Milosevic government that bars heavy weapons from the buffer area. American troops patrol the Kosovo side of the zone.

Nevertheless, the presence of additional tanks, armored personnel carriers and infantry was seen as a demonstration of Belgrade's resolve to prevent ethnic Albanian rebels from seizing and holding Serbian territory.

"They are terrorists and bandits and will be treated as such," said Vladan Batic, a leading Kostunica ally who visited the area Sunday. "It is the task of every responsible state to protect its citizens."

Yugoslav officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the militants had smuggled small artillery pieces and more than 100 small mortars across the U.S.-patrolled boundary into positions on the Yugoslav side of the demilitarized zone.

The Interior Ministry report said Serb police "cannot hold out long unless they receive reinforcements from Serbia proper." It recommended mobilizing Serb men of military age and using them to augment police units already in the area.

In Bujanovac, one of the towns in the contested area, Mayor Stojanca Arsic blamed the attacks on the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the ethnic Albanian rebel group that fought Yugoslav forces in Kosovo last year but which NATO says has been disbanded. He urged NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo to "really disarm the supposedly demilitarized Kosovo Liberation Army" and prevent more weapons from reaching the buffer zone


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), November 26, 2000


Albanians flee as Serbian tanks roll in

By Nicholas Wood in Konculj, Serbia

Yugoslavia's Army has sent tanks and reinforcements to an area near the Untied Nations-patrolled boundary with Kosovo, 24 hours before a ceasefire between Serbian police and Albanian militants was set to end last night, residents said.

Fearing a Yugoslav offensive, hundreds of Albanian refugees fled south-eastern Serbia late on Sunday, with dozens of cars and tractors queuing up at the boundary with Kosovo.

The UN High Commission for Refugees in Kosovo said at least 1,200 people had crossed into the province.

Tension in the region increased after fierce fighting last week between the Serb authorities and the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, an offshoot of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The guerilla group, which receives arms and fighters from within Kosovo, is seeking independence for three Albanian-speaking towns in south-eastern Serbia. Last week's clashes were the most intense the area has seen since fighting began in February.

Yugoslavia's President Vojislav Kostunica said at the weekend that the UN-led force, known as KFOR, bore a responsibility to curb Albanian militants because "they excluded the Yugoslav Army" from Kosovo "and limited our police to carrying only light weapons".

"It is clearly the task of KFOR to secure law and order," Mr Kostunica said on national television. He also said the new government must avoid "an episode like Racak", referring to the 1998 killing of dozens of ethnic Albanian civilians during an operation against ethnic Albanian militants.

There were consistent reports that the Yugoslav Army had deployed tanks and troops in the region.

"There are lots of army, tanks and people digging trenches. We are all surrounded," said Burim Sylejman, a 17-year-old from the village of Oslare, who was driving 18 members of his extended family in a tractor and trailer to Kosovo.

Yugoslav interior police and regular army troops were being brought in to Bujanovac and the surrounding villages, he said.

"They've put sandbags in the streets and they have blocked the roads out of Ternovc, and they are turning people back."

Near Konculj, the key village captured by the guerillas in last week's fighting, another man driving a tractor said he saw seven tanks nearby.

The use of tanks in the area would breach a UN agreement banning the Yugoslav Army from entering within five kilometres of the provincial boundary with Serbia.

A KFOR spokesman was unable to confirm the troop movements. The refugee influx comes at an awkward time for the UN chief administrator in Kosovo, Dr Bernard Kouchner. He was due to meet President Kostunica in Vienna yesterday.

Last week, Mr Zoran Djindjic, one of Yugoslavia's most senior politicians, warned that if the world continued to tolerate the situation it would lead to "full-scale war".

A KFOR spokesman, Flight-Lieutenant Mark Whitty, said the guerillas and the Serbian authorities held talks at the weekend.

However, members of the Kosovar-backed guerilla groups showed no sign of relinquishing any territory as the ceasefire deadline approached, with groups of soldiers carrying an assortment of machine-guns and mortars guarding the hilltops around Konculj.


The Guardian, Associated Press

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), November 27, 2000.

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