NATO beefs up presence ahead of Yugoslav army deployment
MUHOVAC, Yugoslavia (AP) – NATO-led peacekeepers closed crossings leading into a zone bordering Kosovo on Wednesday, preparing the way for the Yugoslav army to enter a haven for ethnic Albanian rebels.
The Yugoslav military, which had been barred from the three-mile zone until two months ago, has now occupied two-thirds of the strip that separates Kosovo from the rest of Serbia. But the last part is the most sensitive because of the rebels’ presence.
NATO allowed the Yugoslav army into the zone because the ethnic Albanian insurgents had taken over much of the area in fighting against lightly armed Serbian police – the only Serb force then allowed in the strip.
On Wednesday, NATO-led peacekeepers on the perimeter of the buffer zone shut down the three crossings leading into the sector where the Yugoslav army was to deploy on Thursday.
The peacekeepers allowed people out of the zone and into Kosovo, but did not permit reverse traffic. Kosovo is Serbia’s southern ethnic Albanian-majority province.
The move surprised most people, and tempers frayed as lines of cars, trucks and tractors grew on the Kosovo side.
”I’ve come here in the morning, and now they won’t let me go back,” complained Ismet Fetahi, saying his 15-member family in the zone had no idea of his whereabouts.
U.S., Russian and British peacekeepers of the NATO-led force parked armored personnel carriers on roadsides at Muhovac and other crossing points, and checked identity papers of those coming into Kosovo.
By late evening, some 200 people – about a third of the population in two nearby villages – had crossed into Kosovo, through the Muhovac checkpoint, as two Apache helicopters hovered overhead.
As part of the agreement with the rebels, NATO and Belgrade authorities said rebels who turn over weapons by midnight Wednesday would be free to go after having their photographs taken.
Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic, speaking in Bujanovac located near Kosovo’s eastern border, said between 4,000 and 5,000 army and police troops would begin moving into the tensest part of the buffer zone.
He said the troops expect ”some possible hostility” and would respond if attacked.
Some villagers fled the zone Wednesday, alleging that Serb security forces wearing masks had swept into their village, Muhovac. Sahadate Jashari, 32, fled on foot with her three sons, claiming the forces threatened her.
Ljubomir Podunavac, a government spokesman in the south, vigorously denied that joint forces of the army and police had entered the zone early.
But authorities later admitted that a police mine clearing team entered a small sector of the most contested part of the zone and defused as many as 15 land mines on a 100-yard stretch of road. The unit pulled out by nightfall.
The rebel agreement to demilitarize and hand over their weapons to NATO in Kosovo came in recognition of the Yugoslav army’s superior strength and lack of international support for the insurgents’ aims.
Like in neighboring Macedonia, the rebels say they are fighting for more rights. Authorities in Yugoslavia and Macedonia say, however, that the insurgents seek to grab territory and attach it to Kosovo in plans for ultimate independence for the province.
In Macedonia, no new fighting was reported for most of Wednesday, after days of clashes near the northern cities of Tetovo and Kumanovo. But in the evening rebels and government troops exchanged fire for some 30 minutes north of Tetovo, using mortars and artillery respectively, the government said.
The buffer zone was created in mid-1999, at the end of a crackdown on Kosovo’s Albanians ordered by former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and stopped only after 78 days of NATO bombing. NATO and the United Nations subsequently took over control of Kosovo.
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