NATO lets Yugoslav troops enter Kosovo border zone

Forces seek to quell operations of armed Albanian militants


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia - NATO and Yugoslavia agreed yesterday to let Yugoslav troops return to a small section of a buffer area on Serbia's tense border with Kosovo and Macedonia, an important sign of confidence in the new democratic authorities in Belgrade, two years after NATO began bombing Yugoslavia to drive Serbian forces out of Kosovo.

Yugoslav soldiers and Interior Ministry police, operating under negotiated rules and without helicopters, tanks or armored personnel carriers, will enter a 9-square-mile section of the zone "in the next few days," announced Lt. Gen. Carlo Cabigiosu, commander of the NATO-led peacekeeping troops in Kosovo.

Under the agreement that ended the Kosovo war in June 1999, Slobodan Milosevic, then the Yugoslav president, agreed to a three-mile-wide "ground safety zone" bordering Kosovo province but inside the rest of Serbia, which only Serbian police with light weapons could enter.

The idea was to separate Yugoslav and NATO troops. But armed Albanian militants, their numbers estimated from 800 to several thousand, use the protection of the zone to recruit and train and to attack Serbian police.

President Vojislav Kostunica and the new government have pressed NATO to shrink or eliminate the zone. With fighting now by ethnic Albanian militants in neighboring Macedonia, NATO has decided to let Yugoslav forces enter the small eastern area of the zone.

Yugoslav officials are wary about the dangers of the area, saying they could be fired upon by ethnic Albanians from three sides: Macedonia, Kosovo and the Presevo Valley, which is in the zone itself and has a large Albanian population. The area is an important smuggling route for people, weapons, supplies and drugs.

NATO succeeded yesterday in getting Albanian representatives to agree to a one-week cease-fire in the zone, but the Albanians added a clause saying that they could not guarantee the safety of Yugoslav forces there.

With no further danger to NATO forces from the Yugoslav army, Kostunica and his aides are pressing for NATO to close down another part of the zone in the next few days, the section along the northern edge of Kosovo, an area dominated by Serbs.

The main part of the zone, about 55 miles on the border of eastern Kosovo, will be reduced gradually, NATO and Yugoslav officials say, depending on the behavior of Yugoslav forces and the reaction of ethnic Albanians both inside the zone and in Kosovo.

The Bush administration and NATO have rejected sending their troops to the zone, and they are concerned that peacekeeping troops inside Kosovo might become targets of anger from Albanians who think the West favors the Serbs.

A Western diplomat with long experience in the region said he expects an organized surge in ethnic Albanians leaving their villages in the zone. The leaders of the Albanian militants "are likely to follow the Kosovo script" to try to show that "nothing has changed in Belgrade and that Kostunica is the same as Milosevic," he said.

Cabigiosu announced the agreement after a meeting with a Serbian deputy prime minister, Nebojsa Covic, in Kosovo. Covic has been instrumental in drawing up a plan for improved relations with the ethnic Albanians of the Presevo Valley, promising better education and housing and offering them posts in local government and the police force.

The so-called Covic Plan has been an important and necessary part of the reduction of the ground-safety zone, NATO officials say, because it emphasizes the new democratic orientation of the authorities in Belgrade and their respect for minority rights.

Cabigiosu said the Yugoslav side would submit a detailed military plan for his approval. "The important condition is to make sure that the local population has nothing to be afraid of," he said. "I am sure the behavior of the Serbian forces will be fair."

Cabigiosu, speaking to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, said he had placed "both military and ethical limits" on the Serbs, demanding that "they do not occupy houses, do not enter villages, do not receive backing from armored cars or use rocket launchers and anti-tank weapons." They will also not be able to use helicopters or plant mines.

"On the other hand," he said, "we have allowed them to use mortars and they will also be allowed to intervene, in coordination with our command, with artillery from behind their lines."

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