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Halt Albanian rebel offensive by Monday, Serbs tell NATO

SHARE Halt Albanian rebel offensive by Monday, Serbs tell NATO

BUJANOVAC, Yugoslavia — In a test for Yugoslavia's young democracy, Serb police on Friday gave NATO troops in Kosovo a 72-hour deadline to stop incursions by ethnic Albanian militants over the border into Serbia.

A show of force by Serbian troops could spark friction between Yugoslavia and the Western alliance that is running Kosovo, but if new Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica does nothing, he could risk being portrayed at home as incapable of dealing with ethnic Albanian extremists.

Ethnic Albanian rebels have taken control of several strategic points and a key road in the buffer zone between Kosovo and central Serbia in an assault that started Tuesday.

The rebels have managed to push Serb police out of much of the 3-mile demilitarized zone, but on Friday the police vowed to quash the offensive. The rebels are fighting for independence of both Kosovo and the so-called Presevo Valley — the buffer zone — in southern Serbia.

"Police have issued a 72-hour deadline for the attacks to stop," said a Serb interior minister, Bozo Prelevic. "We have received firm assurances that KFOR will prevent any incursions (from Kosovo) and disarm and arrest the terrorists who have come from Kosovo." KFOR stands for Kosovo's international peacekeeping force.

He said that in case NATO fails to prevent the ethnic Albanian incursions and force the militants back into Kosovo, Serb police "will return to the territory of the republic of Serbia (in the buffer zone) with the means that are available."

Prelevic said the countdown starts Friday at 7 p.m. local time, meaning the deadline would expire Monday.

Kostunica, returning form a European Union summit in Zagreb, Croatia, said: "The first step to solve the new crisis in Kosovo is to seal, hermetically close, the administrative border between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia ... to prevent further attacks by ethnic Albanian terrorists who shoot at our policemen."

In a statement, KFOR called on both sides "to exercise caution and restraint" and said it was "encouraged by the temporary cease-fire declaration" announced by the Belgrade government.

The statement apparently referred to the 72-hour deadline announced by Serb police, indicating they will not intervene until then.

In a statement released Friday night, ethnic Albanian rebel leaders announced a 48-hour cease-fire "to give room to the political process instead of armed confrontation."

Sporadic shooting was reported in the buffer zone Friday, where Serb police and armed ethnic Albanians eyed each other from dug-up positions along the front line, not far from the U.S. troops patrolling the Kosovo side of the zone. Four Serb policemen have been killed and a dozen injured since Tuesday.

"The obvious intention (by the extremists) was to provoke a reaction from police and army against the civilian population," Prelevic said. "The intention was to try to make the new government in Yugoslavia look the same as the old one."

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's fierce crackdown against Kosovo Albanian rebels between 1998-99 provoked NATO's 78-day air strikes against Yugoslavia, which forced Serb troops out of the province and paved the way for NATO deployment.

The buffer zone was the result of last June's NATO agreement with Milosevic's government, allowing only 1,500 regular, lightly armed Serb troops to patrol the area.

The latest crisis comes as a fresh test for Kostunica's government, which took over from Milosevic after winning elections in September. Already, Milosevic's loyalists in Serbia have been blaming the new government for not being resolute enough to handle the crisis.

However, if Serb police fight back with massive force, they risk a serious incident with NATO, only days after Kostunica's government re-established ties with the United States and its allies that were cut by Milosevic.

Prelevic said Serb police, if they intervened, would not be armed with heavy weapons in order to respect last June's peace agreement with NATO. "Serbian police will not create an international incident," he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on Friday urged the West to act more decisively in Kosovo.

"Preservation of Yugoslavia's territorial integrity is a question of principle for us. If separatists in Kosovo achieve their goal, and the territory separates from Yugoslavia, it will destabilize the ... Balkans and is likely to have far-reaching unfavorable consequences," Ivanov said.

Approximately 600 people have fled the area under attack this week, said Astrid Van Genderen Stort, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency. The ethnic Albanian refugees crossing the border into Kosovo reported shooting and shelling of their villages, she said.

In another possible sign of the delicate relationship between the new Yugoslav government and the United States, officials in Washington said Friday that Kostunica will not meet with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during a conference next week in Vienna.

The officials blamed scheduling problems. There had been strong hints in European circles that Kostunica may not have been eager to meet with Albright because of her identification with the U.S.-led air war.