Presevo Peace Talks Begin

Yugoslav negotiators rule out regional autonomy in Presevo peace talks

Presevo Peace Talks Begin

Yugoslav negotiators rule out regional autonomy in Presevo peace talks

Serbian security forces have spread out across the town of Bujanovac a week into the ceasefire between Belgrade and Albanian fighters in southern Serbia,

There's optimism a more permanent agreement can be thrashed out, despite the continuing tension.

Outbreaks of violence still occur. Negotiators have less than total control over the warring parties, who fiercely maintain their positions along the lines that separate them.

But analysts see room for agreement following the recent truce, and Belgrade is optimistic about peace negotiations, which began on March 23. " We clearly understand the demands of the local Albanians and I am optimistic," said an official from the Serbian and Yugoslav government coordinating team.

Sources close to the Belgrade team said they were ready to grant the Albanians in southern Serbia a high degree of civil and political rights, but rule out any special status for the region.

"We hope their intentions are honest, for if behind the events in the southern Serbia and Macedonia there lies a desire to alter borders, then there can be no hope of solving the Balkan crisis," the official said.

The Serbian negotiators are demanding the return of Serbs kidnapped in the buffer zone as well as a reduction in the number of guerrillas from the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedje and Bujanovac, UCPMB, in the Albanian negotiating delegation.

"However I think we will be able to find an acceptable solution and the negotiations will start on time," a Yugoslav official said.

A senior Serbian police officer in the village of Lucane outside Bujanovac told IWPR that his forces were keeping strictly to the terms of the ceasefire, and attacks by armed Albanians were "only sporadic".

"You see, although a truce has been signed, they continue to dig new trenches and bring up more reinforcements. That is not a good sign", he said, indicating the positions of the armed Albanian groups which control half the village.

Most of the Albanians in southern Serbia live in and around the municipality of

Bujanovac and the neighbouring villages of Lucane, Veliki Trnovac. More than 30 people have died in fighting between UCPMB and lightly armed Serbian police in the past year.

Despite the tension, lorries and cars full of civilians - mainly Albanians who live inside the security zone - pass freely across the region.

The Serbian and Yugoslav government coordinating team, led by Serbian vice-president Nebojsa Covic, has set up its base in Bujanovac. Although the town remains peaceful, armed members of the Yugloslav army, VJ, and Serbian police are stationed on most main roads, and the streets are busy with all-terrain vehicles and lorries ferrying policemen and soldiers.

A curfew has not been imposed, but the streets are virtually empty in the evenings and windows are shuttered.

Serbs who talked to the IWPR were pinning their hopes on the Serbian government's peace efforts.

"Covic is trying to persuade us that everything can be resolved peacefully

and that Belgrade has not forgotten us in the south of Serbia," said a concerned Marija Kovacevic of Bujanovac. " I hope he is right. We feel much safer since the police and army have been here with us. I don't know what would happen if they left."

Although there is theoretical freedom of movement in the municipality, you rarely see a Serb on Kosovska Street in the western part of the town, which is mainly inhabited by Albanians. According to 1991 polls, the municipality had 49,000 inhabitants, 69 per cent of which were Albanians.

"Kosovska Street used to be very busy at times," said an Albanian passerby. " The Serbs were happy to visit our shops and sit and talk with us in the cafes. All that is gone now. There's a great lack of trust between the two peoples. Although the situation has improved since the political changes in Belgrade, a final agreement is yet to be made."

Shenoll Aliu, an Albanian shopkeeper, told IWPR, "The blame lies mainly with Milosevic. During his rule we were oppressed and humiliated in every possible way. There was no room for our people in the local administration. The financial police went out of their way to find irregularities with the work of many of our private businessmen in order to fine them or close down their shops or businesses."

He said things got worse during NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia. "The furniture company Simpo in Bujanovac used to employ 48 of us Albanians, " he went on. "On the first day of the bombings, with no explanations, we were sacked. They told us that we could return to work at the end of the war. That was two years ago and nothing's happened. We took Simpo to court but the company is refusing to appear at any hearings."

Another local Albanian, Qenan Xhelili, said his community did not want to separate from Serbia, but insisted on the authorities respecting their human and civilian rights, as well as a commiting themselves to the demilitarisation of the region and the formation of an ethnically-mixed local police force.

Most of the those interviewed on Kosovska Street were positive about the Serbian peace plan for the region, which includes the reinstatement of rights for Albanians and investment in local infrastructure.

Local Albanians do not see a link between the problems in southern Serbia and the crisis in Macedonia.

"Our people in Macedonia have their own problems which they have to solve through negotiating with the government in Skopje," said Xhelili. "This has nothing to do with the south of Serbia. The current situation in Macedonia will not have any bearing on the way things develop here."

But this view is not shared by Serbian negotiators. A source close to the head of their team said the crisis in Macedonia could effect the local truce and strengthen the positions of extremists pressing for the secession of the southern Serbian municipalities.

The source said the peace process is also being hindered by radical factions within the Yugoslav establishment - survivors of the Milosevic regime. For this reason, Covic had taken control of all Yugoslav security forces in the area.

"In the past, the Yugoslav army has retaliated against small arms fire from the Albanian side with overwhelming force, " said the source. "This was the result of irresponsible orders from the top.

"Certain generals have also given their own free interpretation to and comments on the development of the peace process in southern Serbia jeopardising the negotiating process. If they do not realise this, they should not remain in their present positions."

Daniel Sunter is a regular IWPR contributor

Macedonia, Serbia
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