GNJILANE, Yugoslavia — NATO's top commander in Kosovo has bluntly rejected any possibility of coming to the rescue of ethnic Albanians under pressure from Serbian forces along the province's border in southern Serbia.
Speaking at a U.S. military base in Kosovo on Friday, German Gen. Klaus Reinhardt insisted that the alliance will not venture across the border.
Reinhardt appeared with Hashim Thaci, Kosovo's top ethnic Albanian political leader. The two made a strong statement that they will maintain a hands-off policy in the Presevo Valley, which falls just outside Kosovo's administrative boundaries.
Reinhardt said the mission of his forces was clear--enforcing a U.N. Security Council resolution "within the boundaries of Kosovo. I repeat, within the boundaries of Kosovo."
Both Kosovo and the region right across the border technically are part of Serbia, the dominant republic of the Yugoslav federation led by Slobodan Milosevic. But Kosovo--which has a heavily ethnic Albanian population--has been under international control since last year's conflict between ethnic Albanians and Milosevic's Serbian forces led to NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.
Now, some in the area fear that the border region could be the scene of renewed fighting similar to the Kosovo conflict.
The area across the border has been the site of sporadic clashes between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and Serbian police.
Hundreds of refugees have been fleeing from predominantly ethnic Albanian towns in southern Serbia over the past two months.
They have streamed into the closest Kosovo town, Gnjilane, about 30 miles southeast of Kosovo's provincial capital, Pristina.
A newly formed rebel group has emerged in the border region. The group's fighters say they are trying to protect villagers there from attacks by Serbian forces.
They are widely believed to have received support from within Kosovo. But the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been stepping up activities to seal Kosovo's border to prevent the export of both weapons and other support for the guerrillas.
Foot patrols, checkpoints and other surveillance operations are being put in place "to detect any cross-border movement," Reinhardt said.
"We are also prepared to take all necessary action to ensure that Kosovo is not used as a staging base for exporting violence into the Presevo Valley, or indeed attempting to extend violence back into Kosovo," he said.
"Any insurgent activity based in Kosovo, and the conduct of cross-border operations, cannot and will not be condoned or tolerated."
Thaci's presence at the news conference apparently was meant to demonstrate a united front against aiding ethnic Albanian militants in the border area.
But Thaci charged that Milosevic's government is manipulating the situation to destabilize Kosovo.
He insisted that Kosovo Albanians "are not going to fall into Belgrade's trap."
Thaci did not condemn the actions of the guerrillas, but he said the situation "may put at risk everything that has been achieved so far in Kosovo. This won't happen."