Kosovo Border Ceasefire Holds, But Return Of Yugoslav Troops Raises Concerns

By Beth Kampschror | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Sarajevo (CNSNews.com) - A ceasefire between ethnic Albanian militants and Yugoslav forces appeared to be holding Tuesday in the volatile border area between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia.

Earlier, Serb officials and NATO's Kosovo peacekeeping force signed an agreement allowing state security forces to return to part of the border buffer zone.

Albanian rebels in the region had vowed over the weekend to "fight to the last man" such a move - but then signed a 20-day cease-fire on Monday. It came into effect at one minute after midnight.

The agreement is a NATO attempt to end rebel weapons smuggling between southern Serbia's Presevo Valley and northern Macedonia, where intensified guerilla activity in recent weeks has sparked fears that Macedonia could be drawn into a fourth civil war in the region in 10 years.

"This cease-fire is the first step in a broader process leading to political and inter-ethnic reconciliation in that region," said NATO secretary-general George Robertson in a statement after the signing.

Yugoslav police and soldiers are due to occupy a three-mile square area, in the triangle between Kosovo, Macedonia and the Presevo region in the next few days.

The buffer zone has been accessible only to lightly armed Serb police under the June 1999 NATO agreement that ended the alliance's bombing campaign. But ethnic Albanian rebels have overrun the zone in their attempt to join the majority Albanian area with Kosovo proper.

The agreement does not specify the number of soldiers permitted or the types of weapons they will be allowed to carry. Belgrade daily Glas Javnosti reported Monday that KFOR has asked the Yugoslav forces not to use rocket launchers or anti-tank weapons, and not to occupy houses or enter villages.

While NATO hailed the final agreement, some Serb officials see it as unfair because it places Yugoslav forces in the most dangerous area of the zone. They hold KFOR ultimately responsible for the unrest exported from Kosovo, for not disarming the Kosovar Albanian fighters.

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic told the Tanjug news agency that it would be more appropriate to allow Yugoslav forces to enter another part of the zone, away from the Macedonia border, which should fall under KFOR's responsibility.

One international analyst said Tuesday that while the cease-fire was a good step, the agreement to bring Serbs back into the zone could exacerbate regional tensions.

The ethnic Albanian rebels saw NATO as their protectors and were having difficulties seeing that the situation had changed, said International Crisis Group analyst James Collins by telephone from Pristina.

"[The Albanians] have gone from being the victims to the oppressors, and they haven't quite caught up with that," he said. "Whether that will mean further attacks on Serb forces in that part of the zone and even [on] NATO at some later date, is a concern."

Collins also expressed doubt that the Yugoslav armed forces are sufficiently reformed to be allowed back into the Kosovo border zone. He said they should be accompanied by a neutral monitoring force to ensure that civilian, non-extremist Albanians stay in the area.

"If the Serbs go in, the Albanians aren't going to stick around to see if the Serb forces are democratic and restructured, if they're going to say, 'Have a nice day' to them. They're going to get out of there," he said.

"What if Serb forces do take a village apart and the Albanians flee? Is KFOR going to intervene military and force the Serbs to leave? I don't think NATO and KFOR have got the political will to do that."

Collins said the removal of both Albanian and Serb forces from the area was "the only sensible way to deal with this."

The agreement may resolve a short-term problem, he added, but the Serbs "have to come to terms with human rights in order to win the hearts and minds of the Albanians."