MERDARE, Yugoslavia — NATO and Serbia agreed on a deal Monday that will allow Serbian police and Yugoslav army troops to return to the buffer zone on Kosovo's border, and ethnic Albanian rebels said they agreed to a cease-fire in the region.
"The final agreement has been reached," said the commander of NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo, Italian Lt. Gen. Carlo Cabigiosu. "In the very near future, the entry of (Yugoslav and Serbian) forces is envisaged for the southernmost sector in the borders" between Yugoslavia and Macedonia.
The move is meant to enable Yugoslavia's forces to help the alliance curb weapons smuggling by ethnic Albanian insurgents in southern Yugoslavia's Presevo Valley and in neighboring Macedonia, where rebel attacks last week raised fears of a wider Balkan conflict. NATO already has increased its presence in areas of Kosovo bordering Macedonia to intercept rebels who use Kosovo as a staging point for their Macedonian campaign.
The 3-mile-wide buffer zone was established in 1999 when NATO-led peacekeepers entered Kosovo after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, which ended former President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanians in the province.
The 1999 Kosovo peace agreement permits only lightly armed Serbian police into the zone. As a result, ethnic Albanian insurgents have been able to establish control over the strip of land, which adjoins Kosovo in the southern part of Serbia. The insurgents also are moving in and out of Macedonia from the southernmost tip of the zone, which ends at the border with Macedonia.
Though separated by borders, the insurgents' struggle in southern Serbia and Macedonia is linked by common demands for more rights for ethnic Albanians who form the majority in the two adjoining regions. The ultimate aim appears to be linking the two regions to an independent Kosovo run by the ethnic Albanian majority, despite international opposition to sovereignty for the Serbian province.
Cabigiosu said the zone will be opened to Yugoslav army troops and Serbian police. He did not, however, give a timeframe. Nor did he say how many army and police units would be able to operate in the region and what kind of weaponry they would be allowed to carry.
Rebels of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, or UCPMB, had expressed vehement opposition on the weekend to permitting a larger Yugoslav and Serbian armed presence in the zone. That had clouded chances of getting them on board for a cease-fire in the region.
But on Monday, just hours after announcement of the deal between NATO and Yugoslavia, rebel commander Shefket Musliu said he had signed a 20-day cease-fire with the Yugoslav side, in a deal mediated by NATO.
Musliu said the rebels remained opposed to Yugoslav army and strong Serb police forces entering the buffer zone, however, adding: "If someone shoots at the Serbs, we will not take responsibility."
Cabigiosu announced agreement on the deal outlining entry of Yugoslav forces into the zone after meeting with Nebojsa Covic, a deputy prime minister of Yugoslavia's main republic, Serbia.
Musliu had threatened over the weekend to "fight to the last man" to keep Yugoslav troops out of the zone.
Addressing that threat Monday before the announcement of the cease fire, Cabigiosu said: "I hope that Albanians in the Presevo and Bujanovac area will understand that this is the time to move from armed conflict to peace."
Covic, the Serbian official, pledged that Yugoslav and Serbian forces "will not misuse the trust" shown by NATO.
"We are not for war, and we will do everything necessary to solve the problem peacefully," he told reporters. Cabigiosu indicated NATO would police Belgrade's forces, saying, "together, we will make sure that the conditions" of the agreement would be respected.
The Presevo Valley is not part of Kosovo and was not covered by the U.N. and NATO peacekeeping mission.
NATO stepped up efforts to resolve the crisis in the Presevo Valley after a flare-up in ethnic fighting last week in Macedonia raised fears that ethnic Albanian militants might engulf the whole region in conflict.
Yugoslavia and Macedonia have blamed the renewed ethnic Albanian insurgency on NATO's failure to disarm militant groups in Kosovo.