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Saturday, May 26, 2001

Yugoslav troops advance in buffer zone,
brace for backlash from top rebel's death

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Scott Schonauer / Stars and Stripes

A Yugoslav soldier helps protect a patrol preparing to move into an ethnic Albanian town in a buffer zone in southern Serbia.

BUJANOVAC, Yugoslavia — Yugoslav forces advanced deeper Friday into a buffer zone around Kosovo and braced for a violent backlash sparked by the killing of a top ethnic Albanian rebel commander.

More than 4,000 troops confronted little resistance on the second day of the operation, but the town of Veliki Ternovac remained tense after the shooting of prominent rebel leader Ridvan Chazimi-Leshi.

While NATO and Yugoslav officials have hailed the reduction of the buffer as a success so far, it is unclear how rebels in the town would react to advancing troops into the region after the Leshi slaying.

On Friday, the Serbian press office in Bujanovac confirmed that Serb security police shot and killed Leshi on the first day troops moved into the buffer.

The shooting infuriated dozens of rebels and destroyed what little trust had been gained by Yugoslav troops over the past several weeks. It also has spread speculation that it might threaten an agreement by a key commander to disband the rebellion.

Yugoslav army and Serbian police forces surrounded Veliki Ternovac, just south of where U.S. and Russian peacekeepers are positioned in Kosovo. Rebel fighters and family members mourned the popular commander and planned to commemorate him with a ceremony.

Dozens of his men remain in the town, controlling access in and out. Under the peace agreement between the guerrilla leader and NATO, the rebels have until the end of the month to disarm. They could be seen Thursday carrying automatic weapons and wearing guerrilla army uniforms.

NATO and Yugoslav officials worked closely in the past several months to prevent bloodshed. Rebels vowed to attack Yugoslav forces who entered the buffer zone, which rebels used as a base in their goal of controlling what extremists call "eastern Kosovo."

Although Leshi had occasionally clashed with Serb government officials, it is not clear why police would shoot him, especially when Serb commanders insisted they would use restraint. He supported the peace agreement and was not considered to be as radical as rebel commander Muhamet Xhemajli, who strongly opposed the negotiations.

Serbian government officials said they wanted to make the operation as visible as possible. Many went out of their way to show reporters, NATO and European Union monitors advancing troops in the buffer zone. Army and police commanders said the entire mission would be done professionally with the aim of preventing any confrontations.

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic assured reporters Thursday that the Albanian community could trust Serbian police and that the reduction of the buffer zone would continue to go smoothly.

"This is very serious progress," Djindijic said. "I think it is a sign that the democratic world trusts our government by giving us this security zone back. It is a sign of confidence and trust. And I think it is a good measure for the future to resolve the problems politically and diplomatically and not by using force."

NATO has allowed Yugoslav troops to enter about 80 percent of the zone since March, but it is the last part, Sector B, that is considered the most dangerous because it is where most of the insurgents are.

Yugoslav forces are entering different sections of Sector B gradually. Teams of soldiers and police trekked through the hilly, rugged terrain in the 3-mile-wide, 22-mile long section behind combat engineers Thursday and Friday. One of the main concerns was the many mines planted by rebels and suspected booby traps in abandoned trenches and camps.

U.S. soldiers with the Joint Implementation Commission and European Union monitors followed in Humvees and all-terrain vehicles.

What they saw were mostly deserted towns and few signs of the insurgency.

Hundreds of families fled Serbia’s Presevo Valley to Kosovo to avoid clashes between rebels and Yugoslav troops. More than 400 rebels have turned themselves in to peacekeepers in Kosovo.

While some ethnic Albanians remained skeptical, Bojroni Sabedim, a resident of Breznicki Muhaxhiri, said soldiers treated him and neighbors with respect.

"No problems," he said. "I was very concerned, but they have been nice and polite."

The mood among residents was completely different in Veliki Trnovac, where insurgents are still fuming over the shooting of Leshi. The town is in the central section of the buffer zone and Yugoslav forces had planned to enter the area next week. However, that could change if problems escalate.

One ethnic Albanian man said the town is teeming with angry rebels. He suggested that reporters avoid the area on Friday.

While it is unclear how the incident might complicate the plan to retake the buffer, it likely will be the riskiest part of an operation that has been relatively peaceful.

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