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Kosovo Rallies Mark Passage of Deadline

Yugoslavia: Serbs and ethnic Albanians clash in province's capital. Milosevic makes gestures to stave off sanctions.

March 20, 1998|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — As a Western-imposed deadline for defusing the Kosovo crisis passed, thousands of Serbs and ethnic Albanians filled the streets here Thursday in rival rallies. Clashes between them, though minor, highlighted the province's volatility amid a government crackdown on Albanian separatists.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic made several cursory gestures aimed at staving off sanctions by Western powers angered by the brutality of Belgrade's anti-guerrilla campaign. A divided international community will decide its next steps in the coming week.

Chanting "We will never give Kosovo away" and singing World War II nationalist songs, large numbers of Serbs paraded through the center of Pristina, Kosovo's capital. They jeered at foreign television cameras and waved Serbian and Yugoslav flags. Serbia and the much smaller Montenegro are all that is left of the former Yugoslav federation.

Placards called on the United States to end its support for "Albanian terrorists." Late Thursday, Serbian motorists drove their cars through the provincial capital, honking horns, flashing lights and again waving flags.

Separately, mostly young ethnic Albanians staged a sit-in to demand an end to what they called Serbian terror and jangled keys to mark the expiration of the West's deadline on Belgrade. Ethnic Albanians make up 90% of the population in the Serbian province.

Milosevic was given until Thursday to withdraw his heavy-handed special police forces from Kosovo and to open negotiations with ethnic Albanian leaders.

The deadline, set by Washington and its five European partners in the Contact Group overseeing Balkan peace efforts, was seen as a way to prevent additional violence after police troops killed at least 77 Albanians earlier this month. At least four police officers also were slain.

Warning the Yugoslav government that failure to comply will invite harsher sanctions, the foreign ministers of Germany and France met Thursday with Milosevic and other Serbian officials in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and Yugoslavia, winning only minor concessions.

German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel reported "progress but no breakthrough" and said the Contact Group will decide Wednesday whether to lift the threat of new sanctions.

The Milosevic regime ceded ever so slightly, saying it was willing to embark on an unconditional dialogue with Albanians seeking independence for Kosovo.

But Milosevic rejected Europe's appointment of former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez as mediator. An outside mediator would "internationalize" the conflict, Milosevic said through the official news agency Tanjug.

Instead, he named as "special envoy" Deputy Prime Minister Vladan Kutlesic, a close advisor involved in writing changes to the constitution that stripped Kosovo of its autonomy in 1989.

The French and German ministers said they won agreement from Milosevic to begin withdrawing special police forces from Kosovo, and that he also told them that he would allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access to the region. The relief group was driven from its work by death threats. On the ground, however, there was no evidence Thursday of a pullout by the special police units.

Ethnic Albanians demanding independence have been demonstrating for days, but Thursday saw the biggest and most organized Serbian counterdemonstration thus far.

With rival communities in the streets, it was perhaps inevitable that the two sides would skirmish. According to witnesses, several Serbs in cars attempted to drive through a crowd of Albanians leaving a protest rally. The Albanians responded by attacking the cars with stones, and then the two groups scuffled until heavily armed riot police broke it up.

The incident ended with minimal damage but was significant because it apparently marked the first time in the crisis that civilians from the two ethnic communities came into conflict. That kind of civil strife is the nightmare scenario of many Balkans experts.

Tensions may only escalate in the coming days. The Albanians are planning elections Sunday for underground institutions, including the presidency and parliament, that they maintain despite Serbian rule. Several opposition political parties, student groups and people purporting to speak on behalf of the armed rebels have demanded that the elections be called off.

But the main political party, fielding the only candidate for president, is insisting that the elections proceed.

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