BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — U.S. peacekeepers in Kosovo opened fire Wednesday on ethnic Albanian guerrillas, wounding two of them. Nearby, violence also flared in southern Serbia's volatile Presevo Valley, where three Yugoslav soldiers were killed by a land mine.
The fresh upsurge in bloodshed could mark an important turning point in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's involvement in the separatist Serbian province. The peacekeeping mission began as an attempt to protect Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority from Serbian repression, but now, for the first time, it has seen U.S. troops cause confirmed casualties of ethnic Albanian guerrillas.
The tough U.S. action Wednesday "definitely sends a message . . . that we're more than capable of defending ourselves," said Sgt. Richard Puckett, a spokesman for the peacekeepers, "and we're not going to let these groups use Kosovo as a safe haven."
The peacekeeping mission, known as KFOR, has tightened patrols in recent days in parts of Kosovo just across the border from the Macedonian village of Tanusevci, which has been held by ethnic Albanian guerrillas for the last three weeks.
Tanusevci is near the Presevo Valley, where ethnic Albanian fighters are battling the Yugoslav army and Serbian police for control of a strip of territory near Kosovo that is primarily inhabited by ethnic Albanians. Serbia is the dominant republic of Yugoslavia.
"KFOR and Macedonia continue to closely work together to ensure the security of your border, to respond to the security threat to Tanusevci and to cut off the extremists currently located there," Daniel Speckhard, deputy assistant to NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, told reporters in the Macedonian capital, Skopje.
Macedonia, which has accused KFOR of being too passive toward the guerrillas, quickly praised the more aggressive U.S. stance. "They are undertaking real actions now," said Nikola Dimitrov, national security advisor to Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski.
The U.N. Security Council met in an urgent session Wednesday at Macedonia's request, condemning the violence along the Kosovo-Macedonian border and urging political leaders in Macedonia and Kosovo to "isolate the forces behind the violent incidents," the Associated Press reported.
About one-quarter of Macedonia's population is ethnic Albanian. Many observers say the guerrillas' aim is to slice off parts of southern Serbia and northern Macedonia that are heavily ethnic Albanian in population and attach them to an ultimately independent "Greater Kosovo" or "Greater Albania." Supporters of the guerrillas often argue that the rebels are not seeking to redraw boundaries but are only resisting repression of ethnic Albanian communities.
Wednesday's incident began when a group of U.S. troops "spotted an armed extremist" and detained him, Puckett said. Another man witnessed this and ran into a building. Five armed men then emerged and "began moving toward the KFOR soldiers, basically trying to outflank or surround them," Puckett said.
"At this point, these men pointed their weapons at the KFOR soldiers, and the U.S. KFOR soldiers fired their weapons in self-defense," he said. "They wounded at least two of these armed extremists."
The detained man escaped during the shooting and together with one of the wounded and three others retreated into a building, Puckett said. Another guerrilla, who was captured after being wounded in the stomach and leg, was in stable condition, Puckett said.
Late Wednesday evening, loudspeaker messages were being broadcast toward the building in an effort "to convince the group to surrender," Puckett said. "They're going to continue to try to talk them out peacefully."
In the other incident Wednesday, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic said his government won't overreact to the deaths of three soldiers and the serious injury of a fourth in the land mine blast. The soldiers' vehicle hit the mine outside the village of Oreovica, on the edge of a 3-mile-wide buffer zone along the Kosovo-Serbian border.
"We have to clench our teeth and continue implementing our restrained policy, because the world has started to restore healthy trust in Serbia," Covic said in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and Yugoslavia.
Meanwhile, debate grew over a suggestion Tuesday by NATO chief Robertson that the Yugoslav army may be allowed to return to the southernmost portion of the buffer zone. Robertson said at the United Nations that he hopes NATO will make a decision this week.
If stationed in that part of the buffer zone--which is also adjacent to Macedonia--Yugoslav soldiers could act to block guerrilla movement between northern Macedonia and the Presevo Valley.
The zone was established in June 1999 to keep Yugoslav forces separate from KFOR troops that entered Kosovo after NATO's 11-week bombing campaign against Yugoslavia's then-president, Slobodan Milosevic. But the zone has been used as a haven by ethnic Albanian fighters in the Presevo Valley.
Ethnic Albanian leaders in Kosovo warned Wednesday that allowing Yugoslav troops into the border area risks an explosion of violence.
Kole Berisha, vice president of the Democratic League of Kosovo, a moderate party headed by pacifist leader Ibrahim Rugova, declared that "the army which until recently committed massacres in Kosovo cannot return to Kosovo or to a part of the Kosovo-Macedonian border, especially not to the triangle between Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia."