Pavkovic Leads Troops into Security Zone

The Yugoslav troops brace themselve for trouble as they deploy in the Kosovo buffer zone

Pavkovic Leads Troops into Security Zone

The Yugoslav troops brace themselve for trouble as they deploy in the Kosovo buffer zone

Yugoslav army Chief of Staff Nebojsa Pavkovic, escorted by troops from the 63rd parachute regiment, entered a remote mountainous section of the Kosovo security zone on Wednesday, March 14.

After preliminary searches by de-mining teams, the commander, travelling in a white jeep, led a small column of troops and military police into an area close to the Serbian-Macedonian border. They were later joined by other Yugoslav units.

The March 10 agreement with NATO allowing the deployment of Yugoslav forces into a 25-mile section of Kosovo buffer zone set off feverish preparations in Belgrade. This week's return is seen here as leading to the phased take-over of other parts of the security zone.

The limited deployment is aimed at severing communications between Albanian rebels in northern Macedonia and the Presevo valley of southern Serbia.

On March 12, Serbia signed a cease-fire agreement with Albanian guerrilla leaders in the Presevo valley. More than 30 people have died in fighting between the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedje and Bujanovac, UCPMB, and lightly armed Serbian police in the past year.

The Albanian militants are thought to control some 70 square miles (200 square kilometres) of the buffer zone.

As part of the agreement, signed by Serbian officials in Merdare on the border between Kosovo and Serbia proper, Yugoslav army heavy weapons stationed around Bujanovac are to be withdrawn to a base in the town.

In exchange, Albanian rebels agreed to halt attacks on Serbian forces, but will remain in their present positions.

The signing had been delayed by rebel objections to the return of Yugoslav forces to the buffer zone, but pressure from NATO, which fears a broader regional war following an upsurge of Albanian guerrilla activity in Macedonia, finally brokered an agreement.

Rebel commander Shefket Musliu said, however, that he remained opposed to Yugoslav deployment in the area. "If someone shoots at the Serbs, we will not take responsibility," he said.

Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic expressed some criticism of NATO over the nature of the proposed Yugoslav assignment.

Both voiced concern that federal troops may be exposed to attacks by Albanian guerrillas.

Others have questioned the restrictions on equipment the Yugoslav troops are allowed to take with them.

Momcilo Perisic, the former Yugoslav army Chief of Staff sacked by Milosevic in 1998 and now a deputy prime minister in the new government, said bans on the use of anti-tank weapons, rocket-launchers and armoured cars placed soldiers in great danger.

The Yugoslav government, nevertheless, concluded the benefits of the NATO deal outweigh the risks, and set in train a series of practical steps to facilitate a successful return of Yugoslav forces to the area.

Belgrade sees this as a test the country's armed forces must pass if NATO, the European Union and the United States, are to consider allowing them into the rest of the buffer zone.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said a phased abolition of the security area would begin once a political agreement was reached between Belgrade and leaders of the Albanian population in southern Serbia.

In an attempt to diffuse tensions in the buffer zone, the Belgrade authorities have been keen to introduce a number of confidence-building measures.

Nebojsa Covic, the Serbian deputy prime minister who signed the March 10 NATO agreement, has sought to reassure Albanians there by prohibiting Yugoslav security forces from disturbing locals or confiscating their property.

"The deployment will be performed cautiously and in accordance with the international rules," Covic said.

Police and army generals have also be ordered to refrain from making public their opinions and assessments on the operation. A NATO requirement, it also limits the likelihood of further gaffes by senior officers prone to offering arbitrary interpretations of Belgrade's dealings with NATO.

For example, General Vladimir Lazarevic, commander of the 3rd Army stationed in southern Serbia, wrongly suggested the phased abolition of the security zone would lead to the return of Yugoslav forces to Kosovo proper.

Acting on NATO advice, Belgrade has also agreed troops deploying in southern Serbia would not include units or officers who served in Kosovo in the 1998-1999 crisis. "There is a completely new team of generals," Covic said. "We hope this will put an end to all the talk of personnel being linked to Kosovo."

Yugoslav army sources say an elite task force of professional soldiers has been brought together for the south Serbia operation. It combines

members of the army's best units - the 72nd special brigade, the 63rd parachute regiment and several units of the military police.

"The most disciplined units have been selected, since there must be no mistakes and confusion in the area of the security zone, " a task force officer said. " The area is only several kilometres wide and there are K-For units, Albanian armed groups and Macedonian security forces in the vicinity."

The March 10 agreement and the return of Yugoslav forces to a section of the buffer zone marks a new stage in relations between Yugoslavia and NATO. Both are working together to achieve a durable peace - quite an achievement given that they were at war just over twelve months ago.

Daniel Sunter is a regular IWPR contributor

Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo
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