Blockade of roads near border with Kosovo lifted

BUJANOVAC, Yugoslavia - Thousands of Serbs who had blocked roads to demand authorities drive ethnic Albanian rebels from a border area near Kosovo lifted their blockade Friday after an appeal from President Vojislav Kostunica.

The move came despite calls by allies of deposed President Slobodan Milosevic to continue the protest near the buffer zone, where ethnic Albanian militants captured several strategic points in an offensive last month.

The call by the local branch of Milosevic's Socialist Party appeared aimed at undermining Yugoslavia's democratic government and Kostunica ahead of parliamentary elections in its main republic, Serbia, on Dec. 23.

On Friday, however, Kostunica urged an end to the three-day blockade, warning that some people were playing on ''the misfortune of others'' to ''collect cheap political points ahead of the elections.''

''Nothing can be done here by force,'' Kostunica said in his declaration, which was read to the protesters by Serbian co-Vice Premier Nebojsa Covic. ''It is better to evade war, and immediately start negotiations. You must be patient.''

Soon after, the blockade was lifted. Since Wednesday, the protesters had shut down the rail line and main roads linking Serbia with Macedonia and Greece to the south.

On Thursday, the Socialist party office in Bujanovac urged the government to ''urgently solve problems'' created by the rebels, who launched attacks and seized police posts in the three-mile-wide buffer zone between Serbia and U.N.-controlled Kosovo.

Despite an end to the blockade, pressure is mounting on Kostunica, who succeeded Milosevic following an uprising in October, to use force against the rebels. However, Yugoslav forces are not allowed to move heavy weapons into the zone under agreements that ended last year's bombing of Yugoslavia and put Kosovo under U.N. and NATO administration.

NATO-led peacekeepers are also not authorized to enter the zone, which is inside Yugoslav-controlled territory. That has enabled the ethnic Albanians to operate there with impunity.

Visiting the protesters Friday, Covic sought to assure them that everything was being done ''to resolve the issue peacefully ... and not against the interests of the citizens and the state.''

The protesters have denied their blockade was politically motivated, despite reports that they included Milosevic supporters. Drawing attention to the impasse in the zone threatened to portray Kostunica as weak and inept.

Milosevic is hoping to stage a political comeback in this month's elections. His aides have repeatedly accused Kostunica and his pro-democracy coalition of selling out Serb national interests.

Kostunica has sought to avoid the sort of harsh crackdown against ethnic Albanians that Milosevic conducted, prompting last year's NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia. The new president has also pushed to repair ties with Yugoslavia's neighbors after the wars fueled by Milosevic in the 1990s.

In a milestone step Friday, Belgrade established ties with Bosnia, eight years after Bosnia seceded from former Yugoslavia in a bloody ethnic war.

The diplomatic agreement ''creates conditions for wars to become unthinkable in the future,'' Bosnian Foreign Minister Jadranko Prlic said at a signing ceremony in Belgrade with his Yugoslav counterpart Goran Svilanovic.

Meanwhile, NATO troops in neighboring Macedonia stepped up border patrols to prevent arms from being smuggled to ethnic Albnanian militants in the border region. Maj. Gen. Volker Loew said some weapons and ammunition for the militants had come from Albania through Macedonia.

Ethnic Albanians make up the vast majority of the population in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's main republic. They want full independence not only for Kosovo but also the heavily ethnic Albanian Presevo Valley region in Serbia proper.

In their offensive last month, the rebels killed four Serb policemen and took control of several villages in the demilitarized zone. The extremists have also attacked Serbs in Kosovo. The Tanjug news agency reported Thursday that a Serb was killed in the town of Kosovska Vitina late Wednesday.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment