- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

MERDARE, Yugoslavia Former enemies NATO and Yugoslavia agreed on a deal yesterday that will allow them to squeeze ethnic Albanian guerrillas from separate flanks, while the rebels signed a cease-fire all moves meant to reduce the threat of a new Balkan war.

Under the agreement, Yugoslavia would be allowed to send better-armed troops into the southern tip of a buffer zone adjoining Kosovo that is now overrun by ethnic Albanian insurgents, who also use the region for incursions into neighboring Macedonia.

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The deal takes some pressure off NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo, particularly the American troops involved in trying to stop the movement of fighters and supplies south into Macedonia, where rebel attacks last week raised fears of a wider Balkan conflict.

NATO already has increased its presence in areas of Kosovo bordering Macedonia. Macedonia's government, however, has been urging NATO to extend its activities into the three-mile-wide buffer zone, which separates Kosovo from the rest of Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic. The alliance has refused, saying it is restricted to Kosovo by the U.N. resolution setting up its mandate.

"The final agreement has been reached," said the commander of NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo, Italian Lt. Gen. Carlo Cabigiosu, referring to the deal on entry of Yugoslav forces into the buffer zone.

"I hope that Albanians in the … area will understand that this is the time to move from armed conflict to peace," Lt. Gen. Cabigiosu said, even as new fighting was reported in a border village between Macedonia and Kosovo.

Though separated by borders, the insurgents' struggle in southern Serbia and Macedonia is linked by common demands for more rights for ethnic Albanians who form the majority in the adjoining regions. The ultimate aim appears to be linking the two regions to an independent Kosovo run by the ethnic Albanian majority.

Rebel commander Shefket Musliu had threatened over the weekend to "fight to the last man" to keep more and better armed Yugoslav troops out of the zone.

But yesterday, just hours after announcement of the deal between NATO and Yugoslavia, Mr. Musliu said he had signed a 20-day cease-fire in the buffer zone, in a deal mediated by NATO.

Nebojsa Covic, a deputy prime minister of Serbia, signed the truce separately, a few hours afterward; the Serbian version of the text had no 20-day limitation.

It was not clear what prompted the rebels to agree to a truce, but the quick agreement between NATO and Belgrade might have caught them off guard.

NATO envoy Pieter Feith described the cease-fire agreement as a "major step forward" and urged rebel commanders to "exercise restraint," and "strictly comply" with its terms.

Mr. Musliu said, however, that the rebels remained opposed to Yugoslav army and strong Serbian police forces entering the zone.

"If someone shoots at the Serbs, we will not take responsibility," he said.

Over the past several months, several policemen have been killed in sporadic fighting in the Presevo Valley area of the buffer zone.

The zone was established in 1999 when NATO-led peacekeepers entered Kosovo after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, which ended former President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanians in the province and prompted the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops. The zone was meant to reduce a threat to NATO-led peacekeepers by keeping the Yugoslav army at arm's length.

The 1999 Kosovo peace agreement permits only lightly armed Serbian police into the zone. As a result, ethnic Albanian insurgents have been able to establish control over the strip of land with relative impunity.

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