PRESEVO, Yugoslavia — Several thousand Yugoslav soldiers and police began moving back into the last--and most important--section of a buffer zone around Kosovo on Thursday, reclaiming territory their government abandoned two years ago under pressure from NATO forces.
The alliance-approved deployment into the zone at the edge of southern Serbia's Presevo Valley marks a milestone in rapidly warming relations between Yugoslavia and the West.
No casualties were reported among Yugoslav forces as of late Thursday, but unconfirmed reports citing local ethnic Albanians said a prominent guerrilla leader--Ridvan Cazimi, also known as Commander Lleshi--had been killed by a sniper. If confirmed, the death could complicate completion of the deployment, planned for next week.
Thursday's action was slowed mainly by concern about mines, rather than active resistance from ethnic Albanians.
The 3-mile-deep buffer zone in southern Serbia was established as part of an agreement in 1999 that ended the alliance's 78-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, carried out to protect Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority from Serbian repression.
The zone was intended to keep Yugoslav forces separate from the international peacekeeping force that has been in Kosovo since the war.
But the zone became a haven for guerrillas seeking to annex the area to Kosovo or at least gain greater rights for its ethnic Albanians.
Most of the key rebel leaders in southern Serbia, facing enormous international pressure and increasingly precarious military prospects, agreed Monday to disband and disarm by the end of this month and to not resist the movement of Yugoslav soldiers and police into the zone.
In return, the international peacekeeping force offered them amnesty and safe retreat into Kosovo, and Yugoslav and Serbian authorities promised greater political rights for the ethnic Albanian majority in the Presevo Valley region, the most volatile area in the buffer zone.
Kosovo is technically still a province of Serbia, the dominant republic in Yugoslavia, but is administered by the United Nations.
Western governments and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have grown increasingly comfortable with authorities in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, since the ouster in October of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. On Thursday, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson commended the deployment, which will complete Yugoslav moves into the buffer zone that began in March.
"The successful demilitarization and peaceful return of government security forces in southern Serbia stands as an important example to other armed groups in the region--particularly those in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia," he said in a statement released in Brussels.
In Macedonia, where ethnic Albanian guerrillas also operate near the Kosovo border, government forces attacked rebel strongholds Thursday even as fierce political controversy erupted over reports that ethnic Albanian parties in the government had reached a peace deal in secret talks with the rebels. Macedonian army spokesman Col. Blagoja Markovski said government troops had started a major offensive "to isolate and destroy the terrorist groups."
In the buffer zone of southern Serbia, Riza Halimi, Presevo mayor and head of the strongest local ethnic Albanian party, said the valley's guerrilla leaders have realized "they have to join the political process."
"Over the last couple of months, there was enormously big pressure, first of all from the international community," Halimi said.
Halimi said he and other local leaders also told the guerrillas that "the time for fighting has passed" and that with Milosevic out of power, "the new authorities [in Belgrade] have the growing support of the international community."
Ethnic Albanian political leaders in Kosovo also urged restraint on the guerrilla leadership in this region, Halimi said.
The Presevo mayor said he expects a reduction of tensions as a result of the transfer of troops toward the Kosovo border and away from heavily populated areas.
Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, speaking at a former guerrilla base in Djordjevac, said Thursday's relatively smooth deployment "is a sign that democratic forces trust us and a sign that we can achieve more with political tools and methods than through violence." Djindjic promised that the new democratic authorities in Belgrade "will offer the Albanian community here a very fair opportunity to participate in the political system."
Halimi, however, predicted difficult negotiations ahead in the effort by ethnic Albanian political leaders to win greater rights in the area. Of particular importance, he said, is full participation by ethnic Albanians in local police forces, which currently are dominated by Serbs.
Ordinary ethnic Albanians in Presevo expressed varied opinions about the deployment and prospects for the future.