Yugoslav troops advance in buffer zone,
brace for backlash from top rebel's death
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
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 Serbias 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
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.
Back to May stories
Page Two news roundup
Stories from April, 2001
Stories from March, 2001
Stories from February,2001
Stories from January, 2001
Stories from December, 2000
Stories from November, 2000
Stories from October, 2000
Stories from August and September, 2000
Stories from June and July, 2000