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Presevo Peace Deal
Serbian forces will Thursday begin deploying in a former Albanian rebel stronghold close to the border with Kosovo, ending a bitter year-long conflict in the south of Serbia.
The NATO-sanctioned deployment comes after leaders of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, UCPMB - named after the three main towns in the predominantly Albanian region - unexpectedly agreed to lay down their arms on Monday.
Rebel leader Shefket Musliu signed a NATO declaration promising to "demilitarise, demobilise and disband" his forces in the Presevo area, otherwise known as the Ground Security Zone, GSZ, no later than May 31.
According to IWPR sources, two of the sector's most militant rebel commanders, Muhamed Xhemajli and Mustafë Shaqiri, have also agreed to the demilitarisation.
Other reports had suggested that Xhemajli rejected the agreement and was arrested by KFOR troops as he was crossing the border into Kosovo. These proved to be groundless as Xhemajli gave an interview to an Albanian journalist in Kosovo today, Wednesday.
Several thousand Yugoslav troops and Serbian police will move into Sector B, the last part of the zone still controlled by the UCPMB. NATO is permitting the troops to move in in a phased operation, despite the threat of renewed violence. The GSZ was set up as part of a peace deal for Kosovo in 1999. It created a buffer between peacekeepers and Yugoslav troops after 78 days of NATO bombing.
Albanian rebels quickly deployed there, claiming they were protecting local Albanians. The international community, it seems, has now managed to persuade guerrilla leaders that the new democratic authorities in Belgrade will guarantee the rights of their community.
But as the Thursday approaches, many still doubt whether further conflict will be averted.
The tension can be felt along the deserted roads of the village of Dobrasin on the border with Kosovo. Residents only leave their houses to consult with each other on whether
to stay or leave.
They say they don't trust the Serbian forces, claiming Yugoslav army troops mistreated them after they withdrew from Kosovo under the Kumanovo agreement to end the fighting there.
"No one really knows what to do - the villagers don't trust the Serb forces, as they are led by the same commanders who fought in Kosovo," said Selami Shefkiu, the head of the Dobrasin village council.
Some 20,000 Presevo Albanians have so far fled to Kosovo because of fighting between Serbian police and the UCPMB. Around 4,000 - perhaps fearing the return of the Yugoslav troops - joined the exodus last week.
"I have worked all my life to build a house and have a normal life, but I was scared and decided to leave, " said Shaqir, from Dobrasin, who fled to Kosovo with his family of six." It's not easy to leave everything and become a refugee."
In order to reduce tensions and persuade Albanian rebels not to continue their fight, the commander of NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, General Thorstein Skiaker, promised the UCPMB on May 16 that if they cross over to Kosovo and hand over
their weapons they will not be arrested. Up to now, over three hundred have done so.
The KFOR mission has also distributed leaflets at border checkpoints with a photograph of a crouching guerrilla. The slogan runs, " Aren't you tired of this?''.
The Serb coordinator, Nebojsa Covic, has, meanwhile, confirmed that there will be general amnesty for UCPMB members who fought Serb forces over the last year.
Some senior rebel figures have continued to issue bellicose statements, but it seems the guerrilla group is dwindling in size and could soon be reduced to a small number of hardcore renegades.
The die-hards are unlikely to be able to put up much resistance to the well-trained Yugoslav troops, but international officials have warned the latter not to take advantage of their superior numbers.
"The return to the security zone is not a blank cheque for Belgrade, " the chairman of NATO's military committee, Admiral Guido Venturoni, told journalists last Friday. "There are several
conditions, which are being met or will be met in the
next few days."
And another senior alliance official also warned Albanian rebels to refrain from violence, " Those who do not agree to lay down weapons might experience what happened a couple of days ago in Rahovica village."
Rahovica is a village outside the buffer zone and just a few miles from Presevo, one of the biggest towns in the area. The guerrillas and Serb forces clashed there
on May 13 for four days. UCPMB suffered severe casualties, losing 17 of its men.
The commander of Serb forces deploying in Sector B is to use units from the 72nd special brigade and 63rd airborne brigade, as well as several elite units from the military police, to deal with any Albanian resistance.
"Some UCPMB commanders have said that if we enter that zone, there will be a general war and bloodshed, " he said. " I don't think this is the case. We will neutralise all
the groups that risk our lives. Dozens of rebels have turned themselves in,
while many others have crossed into Kosovo."
Serbian politicians are hopeful the Albanian rebels will come to their senses and not attempt to hold out. Bojan Dimitrijevic, a senior member of the ruling Democratic Party, said he believed only 100 or so UCPMB members will fight to the bitter end.
Meanwhile, Western diplomats have stated clearly that they will not become hostage to Albanians' militant threats - and are now urging them to cooperate.
"I cannot see how the Albanians can benefit from a resumption of violence - if the UCPMB decides to continue to fight it would be a catastrophe for the Albanians," said Chris Dell, the head of the US government office in Pristina.
NATO is hoping the Serbian deployment will run smoothly, but it is preparing for the worst.
An internal KFOR memo, which has been circulating in the offices of international organisations in Kosovo for over a month, underlines concerns over Sector B. It suggests that some 30,000 Albanians could be displaced by the Serb take-over in the area.
Though clearly concerned over the possible fate of Presevo valley civilians,
Albanian leaders in Kosovo have nonetheless expressed their support for
the agreement to demilitarise the region.
Ibrahim Rugova, leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, said he did not anticipate any confrontations between Serb forces and renegade Albanian militants.
Hashim Thaqi, the president of Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, said he supported and "will
continue to support a political solution to the crisis", adding that he hopes the Albanians in the
Presevo valley "will enjoy their rights".
According to the leader of the Alliance for Future of Kosovo, AAK, Ramush Haradinaj "the agreement between the parties in the conflict is a success and should be supported".
People in Kosovo, especially residents of towns close to the border, are making preparations for the anticipated influx of refugees. Tents are being erected in a joint operation between the Kosovo Protection Corps and KFOR.
Western diplomats are cautiously optimistic about the Serbian deployment, believing the new Belgrade authorities will do their utmost to prevent further bloodshed. But ordinary Albanians are not so sure. To them, the Yugoslav troops and Serbian police taking control of Sector B are the same forces that committed war crimes in Kosovo.
This report was compiled by Koha Ditore journalists Garentina Kraja in Pristina, Gnjilane, and Vitina; Augustin Palokaj in Brussels; Metali Krasniqi in the Presevo valley; and IWPR contributor Daniel Sunter in Belgrade
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