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Truce Talks Break Off Amid Fighting in Southern Serbia

Balkans: Yugoslav forces' access to Kosovo buffer zone is postponed. Negotiations on a cease-fire between rebels and troops are set to resume today.

March 11, 2001|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Talks on a proposed cease-fire between Yugoslav forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas in southern Serbia's Presevo Valley broke off with no apparent progress Saturday.

The difficulties delayed today's plans for Yugoslav troops to begin entering part of a buffer zone between Kosovo and Serbia proper adjacent to the Macedonian border, Yugoslav authorities said.

Government officials earlier said they expected the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to give final approval Saturday of the terms under which Yugoslav forces would be allowed to enter the buffer zone.

NATO granted approval in principle last week for Yugoslav forces to cut off routes used by guerrillas operating along the Kosovo border in northern Macedonia and the nearby Presevo Valley.

The proposed cease-fire is being brokered by NATO special envoy Pieter Feith, who met separately in the Presevo Valley on Saturday with representatives of each side.

"The talks with Mr. Feith will continue tomorrow," Rasim Ljajic, Yugoslavia's minister for minority affairs said Saturday evening. Today's talks between Yugoslav authorities and Feith will be "both about the [cease-fire] agreement and about entry of Yugoslav forces into the ground safety zone on the border toward Macedonia."

In the guerrilla-held Presevo Valley villages of Konculj and Ternavc, rebels and ordinary citizens gave no signs of willingness to back down or call off the fight.

"The front line . . . will be defended up to the last drop of blood," said a guerrilla leader who goes by the name Commander Lleshi. The morale of the fighters "is as high as it gets because we are fighting for a just cause and we know we are right."

Many observers say the rebels' long-term aim is to slice off parts of southern Serbia and northern Macedonia that are heavily ethnic Albanian and attach them to an ultimately independent "Greater Kosovo" or "Greater Albania."

Some of those interviewed Saturday in guerrilla-held territory complained about unfair boundaries that split the Albanian people, although others said they want only an end to repression and are not seeking separation from Serbia. Kosovo is a province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic.

"We are not trying to create problems," said a guerrilla who identified himself as Lami. "All we want is freedom. . . . They drew borders between us without ever asking us about it. I guess the intention was to divide us so that we grow weaker. It's the violence against us that left us without any choice. You think I like to be here jumping on the smallest noise? No, but I'm sure I cannot live as a slave anymore."

Ymer Halili, an ethnic Albanian in his 60s who lives in the area, said he and his neighbors "know that we are inside Serbia's borders."

"We can talk a lot about whether these borders are legitimate or not, but we also know that whatever the outcome, the world will never let us have different borders," Halili said. "We are going to remain inside Serbia. All we want is that these kids can go to school, have the right to learn in their own language and not be afraid all their lives just because they are Albanians."

A guerrilla standing nearby and listening to the conversation jumped in, declaring, "No Serbs will come here as long as we are alive."

"That's what you think," the older man shot back.

"It's impossible to live like this with your bags packed under your pillow," Halili added. "I hope the guys on top will reach some kind of agreement, because I want my grandchildren to be raised here, where they belong. . . . [But] you can never trust the Serbs, because a given promise means nothing to them."

Meanwhile, fighting continued Saturday in the Serb-held Presevo Valley villages of Lucane and Oslare.

"Today [the guerrillas] have used everything--mortars, automatic grenade launchers, heavy machine guns, ordinary machine guns, sniper fire," said Rodomir Djeric, a Serbian officer in Lucane. "Nothing is over."

A mortar attack on Oslare by guerrillas injured an 11-year-old boy in the arm when a shell struck a house, Yugoslav officials said.

Mortar shells were also landing in guerrilla-held territory, within a quarter of a mile of Konculj, the guerrilla headquarters, where children were playing in the narrow streets as if nothing special were happening.

*

Times special correspondent Blerim Gjoci in Konculj, Yugoslavia, contributed to this report.

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