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NATO Allows Yugoslav Army To Enter Kosovar Buffer Zone

By David Holley
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- BELGRADE, Yugoslavia

NATO agreed Thursday to allow Yugoslav troops to enter a buffer zone next to Kosovo and neighboring Macedonia that ethnic Albanian guerrillas have been using as a haven.

The action, aimed at cutting off routes used by the guerrillas, marks a further warming of the alliance’s ties with the Yugoslav government and another step in a growing confrontation between NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo and ethnic Albanian fighters near the borders of the separatist province.

“Of course, we accept that offer,” Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica told a news conference here, while warning about the dangers his soldiers will face in the three-mile-wide zone, established in mid-1999 to keep Yugoslav forces separated from the KFOR peacekeeping troops. NATO waged an 11-week air war against Yugoslavia in 1999 to stop an “ethnic cleansing” campaign against Kosovo Albanians.

“KFOR ... is inviting our army to be in the cross-fire,” Kostunica said. “The army will of course do this, but it now undoubtedly has to make up for the mistakes of others.”

Kostunica charged that KFOR’s role in Kosovo -- which is under U.N. administration but remains a province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic -- has produced “disastrous” results. What is lacking, he said, is “more readiness to risk something, maybe more courage, on the part of NATO and KFOR.”

But on Kosovo’s southern border with Macedonia on Thursday, U.S.-led KFOR troops continued to show a newly aggressive stance, sweeping into the northern part of the Macedonian village of Tanusevci, which has been held by ethnic Albanian fighters since mid-February. Mindful of the sensitive issue of crossing borders, a KFOR spokeswoman stressed that the village straddles the Kosovo-Macedonian frontier.

The situation on the Macedonian side remained unclear Thursday, with conflicting reports on who controlled the rest of Tanusevci.

Late Thursday evening, police in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, told reporters that a convoy near the border had come under attack, with a jeep blown up and its driver killed by a mortar shell or shoulder-launched grenade. The convoy was reported attacked a second time near the Macedonian village of Brest by guerrillas firing small arms, leading to a shootout that lasted about an hour. It was unclear whether there were casualties in the second attack.

In Brussels, Belgium, George Robertson, NATO’s secretary-general, issued a statement that “NATO is determined that those extremist elements seeking to sow instability or to advance their political agenda by violent means will be stopped, whether in southern Serbia, in ... Macedonia or within Kosovo.”

Robertson said the alliance had authorized KFOR commander Carlo Cabigiosu “to allow the controlled return” of Yugoslav forces in a “narrow sector” of the buffer zone next to Macedonia.