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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA | DISPATCH FROM KOSOVO

Amid Pristina's Forced Evacuation, 1 Man Forced to Remain

Politics: A prisoner in his home, ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova has been negotiating with top Yugoslav officials for permission to join exodus.

April 06, 1999|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — When Serbian security forces drove all the ethnic Albanians from the northeast part of Kosovo's capital, they held back Ibrahim Rugova, who became a prisoner with his family in their home.

Rugova, the only ethnic Albanian leader who can claim a broad popular mandate, has been negotiating for several days with the top leaders of Yugoslavia's government for permission to join the exodus with more than a dozen family members.

Twice elected Kosovo's president in unofficial ballots that Belgrade rejected, Rugova now is a useful pawn to Slobodan Milosevic as the Yugoslav president calculates his next move.

After meeting with Rugova at the presidential palace in Belgrade on Thursday, Milosevic on Monday sent Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic to Pristina for further talks with Rugova.

When Sainovic, accompanied by several bodyguards, arrived at Rugova's house in a black Mercedes-Benz, he didn't bother to pause and knock at the front door. When the two men shared a couch for the cameras, they couldn't have sat farther apart.

As Sainovic looked on, a foreign journalist told Rugova that NATO had claimed at a Sunday briefing in Brussels that he was under house arrest. Rugova formulated his answer very carefully.

"I have here Serbian security," Rugova said in English. "I asked to go out of Kosovo to help this situation for the Serbian side and the Albanian side."

Neither man would say anything more for the record.

Rugova has headed the Democratic League of Kosovo since 1989, the year that Milosevic had Kosovo's autonomy revoked, one of the first steps in the violent disintegration of the old Yugoslavia.

A referendum in May 1991 committed Rugova's party to the demand for "a sovereign and independent state of Kosovo," which Milosevic and Western governments insist they won't allow.

For years, Rugova tried peaceful resistance. But as more ethnic Albanians lost patience with Milosevic's repression, the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army launched an armed struggle.

Milosevic's drive to crush the KLA by destroying whole villages and creating a refugee crisis finally provoked the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's airstrikes. Since the airstrikes began March 24, hundreds of thousands more ethnic Albanians have been expelled from Kosovo.

"We have to stop the situation in Kosovo, stop the bombing and put monitoring on all of this," Rugova said in French after a meeting Monday morning with the Russian ambassador to Yugoslavia, Yuri Kotov.

"I hope that this will be discussed at an international level. This is not a question for me. Currently, I'm interested in leaving Kosovo and working on this plan for the Serbs and the Albanians."

Those words may explain why Milosevic is trying to keep Rugova, a pacifist educated at the Sorbonne in Paris, in Kosovo as a kind of captive negotiating partner.

To those who have studied Milosevic over the last decade, it's a classic gambit: create an international crisis, and then present himself as the solution.

Sitting next to Kotov, Rugova said he needed to go to the Macedonian capital, Skopje, and to other countries to work on a solution to the war over Kosovo.

"I believe I can contribute more if I now work outside of Kosovo, and then return to Kosovo and contribute to the situation," Rugova said. "I also told the Serbian authorities that that is my demand, and I am awaiting their answer on this."

Kotov replied that Sainovic "confirmed to me that you are free in all of your movements. They're equally worried about your personal security. That is why I believe that the situation can be resolved."

Rugova didn't appear to be convinced.

After his afternoon meeting with Sainovic, Serbian authorities released what they said was a joint statement certified by Rugova aide and bodyguard Adem Merovci, whose right eye is almost swollen shut.

With no mention of Rugova's demand to leave Kosovo, it reaffirmed his earlier declaration with Milosevic that only a political solution, not bombing, would solve the Kosovo crisis.

NATO said Sunday that its sources are convinced the earlier statement was faked, and that state-run TV video of the two leaders smiling together at Milosevic's palace was actually 2 years old.

When asked if NATO was right, that the report was phony, Rugova replied that was speculation and said, without elaborating: "I was in Belgrade."

According to the statement released by Serbian authorities, the discussions between Sainovic and Rugova on Monday elaborated on those the Kosovo Albanian leader had with Milosevic.

"During the talks, they agreed that there was a complete readiness to work together on the political process to resolve the Kosovo question [and] to work together on the return of refugees and displaced people to their homes."

Rugova's three-story house is a landmark in Pristina's Velanija district, which is deserted after Serbian security forces and paramilitary units forced everyone else to leave.

Rugova is believed to be confined to the first floor with his wife, two sisters and 11 other relatives, mostly children.

When reporters were escorted to the second floor Monday, they passed a hall where there were more than a dozen pairs of shoes, large and small, set outside a closed door.

As Rugova tried to find a way for himself and his family to get out of Kosovo, the Russian diplomat preferred to emphasize the need for hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians to return.

"We are certain that the population of Kosovo has to come back, and during our talks with the Yugoslav authorities, they confirm this," Kotov said.

"They are calling for the population of Kosovo to come back. But I also understand that it is very difficult to come back under the bombs. I also appreciate the courage of Mr. Rugova, who stayed here during this dangerous situation."

Looking tired and isolated, and almost pleading, Rugova said: "I'm without my people, unfortunately. I have to work on the political path."

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