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NATO to Shrink Buffer Zone Between Kosovo and the Rest of Serbia

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization announced Tuesday that it will soon begin a “phased and conditioned” reduction of a volatile buffer zone between Serbia proper and its separatist province, Kosovo.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson made the announcement after talks between Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and 18 European foreign ministers. Robertson called the plan to scale back the 3-mile-deep zone a first step toward a lasting peace.

The zone was established to separate warring forces and protect NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo, but ethnic Albanian guerrillas in the Presevo Valley region of southern Serbia have exploited the border area to seize territory.

Both the reduction of the zone and its timing will be conditioned on “appropriate confidence-building measures” by the newly democratic Yugoslav government to deal with the rebels in the Presevo area, Robertson said at a news conference with Powell at NATO headquarters here. Serbia is the dominant Yugoslav republic.

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It is “unacceptable” for the buffer zone “to be used as some kind of safe haven for extremists,” Robertson said.

Powell said ethnic Albanian radicals are the source of the problem in the zone.

The move was welcomed by authorities in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, and greeted with shock by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, who expressed fear that it will lead to Serbian military or police action in the Presevo area.

“Politically, it is a very clear message to the representatives of radical rebel Albanians in the vicinity of Presevo that the patience of NATO is approaching an end, but they cannot hear well,” Zarko Korac, the deputy prime minister of Serbia, said in Belgrade. “Hotheads are always very hot, and they’re especially hot in the Balkans. NATO and the [European Union] will have to choose whether they care more about 1,000 extremists in the hills around Presevo or democratic Serbia. I don’t think this will be a very difficult choice.”

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Sherif Konjufca, spokesman for the Alliance for Kosovo, a political party that emerged from the now-disbanded separatist Kosovo Liberation Army, said the NATO decision “was very surprising to us.”

“For people [of the Presevo Valley] who have been oppressed, their chance to live free is taken away now,” Konjufca said in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. “That population is now in danger of ethnic cleansing, and Kosovo will be full of refugees again.”

NATO launched an 11-week air war in 1999 against then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to end his brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Alush Gashi, vice president of the Democratic League of Kosovo, the moderate ethnic Albanian party headed by pacifist leader Ibrahim Rugova, expressed hope that NATO would rethink its decision.

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“I’m afraid this will encourage Serbian forces to increase their pressure on the Albanians” of the Presevo area, Gashi said.

In Brussels, Robertson called on both sides in the Presevo Valley conflict to follow up with direct talks.

Robertson noted that NATO could “only do so much. We can create opportunities, but it’s up to the people” to take advantage of them.

Tuesday’s decision means the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force in Kosovo “is on a path to confront at least a part of the Albanian extremists,” Stojan Cerovic, a prominent Serbian political analyst, predicted in Belgrade.

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The struggle over Kosovo was always “basically a conflict over this territory,” Cerovic added. “The Albanians are now going to do whatever they can to finish this war and get full control of Kosovo. . . . There is a serious risk that KFOR will be forced to clash with the Albanians. I guess everybody would like to avoid that.”

Powell, in Brussels, pledged that the United States won’t withdraw early from its military commitment in the Balkans.

“We went in together, and we’ll go out together,” he told the news conference.

Powell’s day of talks with NATO foreign ministers turned into a show of solidarity between the Bush administration and its European allies on two other key issues. The talks produced “quite a degree of common ground,” which created “a foundation for moving forward,” Robertson said.

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On the subject of national missile defense, Powell said he had received “very good responses” from his European counterparts on the controversial U.S. plan to build a protective shield against ballistic missiles. He said his talks here had led to greater understanding in Europe of U.S. plans, and he pledged additional consultations to ease future concerns in the EU, Russia and China.

Powell, who stopped in Brussels on the last leg of a five-day swing through the Mideast and Europe, told the European foreign ministers that the Bush administration is now prepared to accept Europe’s plan to build its own rapid deployment force. The European Security and Defense Plan has “every potential” to improve NATO, he added.

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Wright reported from Brussels and Holley from Belgrade. Times special correspondent Blerim Gjoci in Pristina contributed to this report.

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