Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Yugoslav Forces to Enter Buffer Zone

Belgrade welcomes NATO decision to allow Yugoslav forces access to a troubled section of the Kosovo buffer zone
By Miroslav Filipovic

The Serbian government has hailed as a victory NATO's decision this week to allow Yugoslav forces back into a small section of the security zone set up around Kosovo after the 1999 conflict.


But sources close to the Yugoslav army say they have serious reservations about the operation.


A NATO official said Yugoslav troops are to be allowed to re-enter a five-kilometre (three- mile) wide section of the buffer zone, but only along the frontier between Serbia and Macedonia. The official said this may represent the first step in a staged return of the federal army to the whole buffer zone around Kosovo.


The section between Macedonia and Serbia was chosen, the source said, in response to Belgrade's complaints that Albanian guerrillas were regularly crossing the frontier.


Albanian guerrillas, members of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, UCPMB, have been active in southern Serbia for over a year. They aim to unite the three municipalities with Kosovo.


In Macedonia, meanwhile, another Albanians guerrilla group, the so-called National Liberation Army, NLA, has emerged.


Belgrade has been demanding for some time that the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, KFOR, disarm the insurgents or allow Yugoslav troops into the area to do so.


It was the activities of the NLA in the Macedonian village of Tanusevac which finally swung the international community's sympathies towards Serbia.


Macedonia is seen as another potential crisis spot in the Balkans. The international community is eager, therefore, to snuff-out any threat to its stability.


Belgrade has trumpeted the return of Yugoslav army to the area as a major diplomatic victory. Federal Prime Minister Zoran Zizic said it would help secure the whole frontier.


The NATO decision has also been interpreted as a vindication of the Serbian government's claim that Albanians are the "bad boys" in the region and are intent on spreading violence beyond Kosovo.


Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic has said in the past that the fact that Albanians have shown themselves in their "true light" is good for Belgrade. He said everyone now knows what Serbs have been saying all along - Albanians are the cause of misfortune in the region.


Military analysts are more wary, however, and argue the NATO decision, regardless of how advantageous it may appear, stems from KFOR's need to preserve the lives of international troops.


"They have deceived us once again," said a Yugoslav army source. " Where there is fighting, there are dead and wounded soldiers. NATO thinks it's better if they are Serbs and not their own. I don't know yet the details of the plan, but it may turn out to be a 'mission impossible' for the army."


The analysts point to the serious problems lying ahead. They argue Yugoslav forces will find themselves wedged in a narrow belt of land with Albanian fighters on either side.


Moreover, KFOR commander General Carlo Cabigiosu of Italy said the federal army would be kept on a tight rein. Units would be allowed to carry machine guns up to 50 calibre (12.7mm) and light mortars, but no heavy weapons, nor armour.


Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica said the proposed area of deployment is dangerous. The fact the army had been invited back in, he said, was proof KFOR had failed to properly establish security in the area.


"What we are really lacking badly is more understanding, more goodwill on the part of KFOR and NATO and more readiness to risk something, maybe more courage.


"KFOR is abandoning the border and is inviting our army into the crossfire. The army will of course do this, but it now undoubtedly has to make up for the mistakes of others."


The Belgrade authorities, it seems, were not at all surprised by the crisis in Macedonia. Yugoslav intelligence sources claim Tanusevac was the site of a Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, medical base right from the beginning of the conflict with Serbia.


Lieutenant-colonel Dragan Stankovic, who was at the time commander of a border-patrol unit in the area, said illegal traffic between Kosovo and Macedonia was very lively, aided by the inaccessible terrain.


"We saw whole columns of people with pack-horses illegally crossing the border in both directions," he said. " Some of them we arrested and took to the police, but some got away."


Following the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from Kosovo in 1999, an IWPR army source claims Yugoslav intelligence warned their Macedonian counterparts Tanusevac could become a guerilla base.


"Now it turns out that they are not capable of controlling the region just as we were not capable of controlling Kosovo," the source said.


IWPR contacts in the Yugoslav army also claim fighting could break out in another part of Macedonia soon. They say intelligence gathered over the last few days suggests Debar, about 50 kilometers south of Tanusevac on the Macedonian-Albanian border, could be the next flashpoint.


Miroslav Filipovic is a regular IWPR contributor.


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