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World Perspective

A Diplomatic Win for Washington in Kosovo

Yugoslavia: Ethnic Albanian militia that vowed to drive Serbs from area beyond border renounces force. U.S. calls it a step 'toward avoiding a flare-up.'

March 24, 2000|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — An ethnic Albanian militia has renounced the use of force against Yugoslav security troops in southern Serbia, possibly defusing a potential crisis that was developing just across the border from the U.S.-patrolled sector of Kosovo, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said Thursday.

Rubin said the pledge--if it is kept--marks "a step in the right direction toward avoiding a flare-up in that area." But he added: "Obviously, there is more work to do. We'll have to see what comes of it."

Most of the guerrillas are veterans of the officially disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, that opposed Serbian rule in Kosovo before and during NATO's 11-week air war against Yugoslavia last year. Although the North Atlantic Treaty Organization campaign compelled Serbian forces to leave Kosovo, the region technically remains a province of Serbia, the dominant of the two Yugoslav republics.

The rebels, who call themselves the Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac Liberation Army, had vowed to drive the Serbs out of three predominantly ethnic Albanian towns located in Serbia proper, just east of Kosovo's provincial border. U.S. troops assigned to the international peacekeeping force control the Kosovo side of the demarcation line.

In recent interviews, the guerrillas have asserted that Serbian repression against the ethnic Albanian towns is growing, just as it did in Kosovo before the NATO air war, which began a year ago today. The rebels have left little doubt that their intention is to provoke military action that would draw in the peacekeepers on their side.

The militia's renunciation of force gave Rubin a success in his first diplomatic mission. Acting as a personal representative of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Rubin visited the area earlier this month, warning the ethnic Albanians that the United States would oppose any attempt to seize additional Serbian territory.

Hashim Thaci, who had acted as the political chief of the KLA, reinforced Rubin's call for restraint, a senior State Department official said. Rubin developed a personal relationship with Thaci during peace talks last year in Rambouillet, France. Those discussions were intended to settle the Kosovo crisis peacefully but failed to do so when Serbia balked at terms accepted by the ethnic Albanians.

Rubin--in a speech earlier Thursday at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington-based think tank--said that during his meetings in Kosovo, "we told [the ethnic Albanian leaders] very bluntly that Kosovo was one thing and the Presevo Valley [in Serbia] was something else."

In Gnjilane, the Kosovo town where the announcement was made Thursday, Januz Musliu of the Political Council for Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac told reporters: "We are against armed confrontation. Our stance and our engagement will be in accord with our own national and international interests, especially with those of the United States and the North Atlantic alliance," Reuters news agency reported.

Before NATO's air war, more than 100,000 ethnic Albanians lived in southern Serbia, near the Kosovo border. But in recent months, their numbers have declined by about one-fourth, to an estimated 75,000.

Western governments had hoped to protect thousands of ethnic Albanians just outside Kosovo by creating a 15-mile-deep buffer zone in Serbia where Yugoslav police and army troops would be banned. But during the talks that ended the war, NATO agreed on a buffer zone only three miles across, leaving ethnic Albanian towns in the Presevo Valley unprotected.

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