- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2001

BRUSSELS NATO said yesterday its forces will begin to withdraw from a narrow strip of Serbia bordering Kosovo, allowing Yugoslav forces to deal with ethnic Albanian guerrillas who have used the zone as a sanctuary for attacks on Serbian police.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, attending his first NATO ministers' meeting as secretary of state, coupled the announcement with a blunt warning to the Albanian extremists that this is "not the time" to start a new war in Europe.

Mr. Powell arrived back at Andrews Air Force Base yesterday evening and later went to Capitol Hill for President Bush's address to Congress.

The announcement in Brussels was seen as a vote of confidence in the new, freely elected Yugoslav government of President Vojislav Kostunica, which has been demanding the right to send troops into the zone in its own defense.

The announcement was seen as a vote of confidence in the new, freely elected Yugoslav government of President Vojislav Kostunica, which has been demanding the right to send troops into the zone in its defense.

It also amounted to an admission that the ethnic Albanians, on whose behalf NATO conducted a 78-day bombing campaign over Yugoslavia in 1999, have become a greater threat to peace in the region than the Serbs.

NATO forced Yugoslavia to accept the 3- to 5-mile-wide zone when Belgrade's forces withdrew from Kosovo at the end of the 1999 bombing campaign. It was intended to prevent clashes between Yugoslav troops and the NATO troops participating in the Kosovo Force (Kfor).

But Albanian guerrillas have in recent months staged attacks in the zone in which they have killed at least five Serbian policemen and seized several villages. They hope to annex the buffer zone, populated mainly by ethnic Albanians, to Kosovo.

"The NATO foreign ministers expressed their deep concern over the use of the ground safety zone as a safe haven for extremist activities," said NATO Secretary-General George Robertson. "NATO is therefore prepared to implement a phased and conditioned reduction of the ground safety zone."

He did not explain what would be involved in such a reduction. However, the ministers stressed at their meeting that the Belgrade government would have to show it will respect the rights of the Albanians there, according to a State Department spokesman.

Mr. Powell used the subsequent news conference to send a direct message to the Albanians responsible for the violence. "This is not the time to start a new conflict in Europe," he said.

Mr. Powell's visit to NATO also was meant to reassure the alliance members that the Bush administration will not pull back on its commitments to NATO or to NATO's peacekeeping missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

"I want to express our commitment to the alliance NATO is as critical today as ever," the secretary said.

While Mr. Powell would not promise the United States would not reduce the size of its forces presently about 13 percent of Kfor he said it would do so only after consultations with allies and that it would do nothing to jeopardize the mission.

"We went in with you we will come out together," he pledged.

Mr. Powell also said the European Security and Defense Initiative, planned by the Europeans as a 60,000-strong rapid reaction force, could be set up without harming U.S.-European cooperation.

However, he said it must be clear that the Europeans are willing to increase their military forces so the new force does not detract from NATO's standby forces.

"There is no credibility without capacity," Mr. Powell said.

Mr. Robertson said European NATO members have "not, over the years, been pulling [their] full weight and need to spend more and better to create a more equal partnership" with the large U.S. defense capacity.

Mr. Powell also reported to the NATO and European Union leaders about his proposal to tighten sanctions on Iraq's ability to acquire weapons of mass destruction while easing restrictions on the import of consumer goods.

The secretary has spent the past several days discussing the plan with Middle East leaders during a tour of five Arab states, Israel and the West Bank.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed Sahaf, in New York yesterday for talks with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, rejected Mr. Powell's suggestions, claiming Iraq had already met all the conditions for the lifting of sanctions.

The proposal is "rubbish from a propagandist, not from a foreign minister," he said.

"We are hearing stupid statements from the foreign minister of the United States of America, talking about clever sanctions, as if all of what has been done since 1990 is stupid," Mr. Sahaf said.

Mr. Powell said Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem had agreed to try to bring under control the smuggling of tons of Iraqi oil through its territory. The proceeds from such oil sales should be funneled through the U.N. oil-for-food program.

Mr. Powell said Monday he had won a similar commitment from Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus.

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