Yugoslavs threaten to move against ethnic Albanian militants

BUJANOVAC, Yugoslavia - The governments of Yugoslavia and of Serbia, its main republic, threatened tough action Saturday unless NATO peacekeepers and United Nations officials running Kosovo clamp down on ethnic Albanian militants in southern Serbia.

The warning, issued at an emergency meeting of the two governments in Bujanovac - at the edge of a tense demilitarized zone abutting Kosovo - came as the Yugoslav army said it had intelligence reports that rebels were planning an offensive later this month.

Yugoslavia demands the U.N. Security Council ''set a shortest possible deadline for measures for an urgent pullback of (ethnic) Albanian terrorists,'' the governments said in a joint declaration.

The three-mile-wide zone between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia was established by the 1999 Kosovo peace deal to keep heavily armed Serb forces at a distance from the province, which the deal put under control of NATO peacekeepers and U.N. officials. Last month, however, armed ethnic Albanians launched attacks in the buffer zone, killed four Serb policemen and seized several villages.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, who attended Saturday's meeting, has come under mounting pressure at home to crack down on the rebels. And the upswing in tensions come ahead of key elections in Serbia, the republic that along with Montenegro makes up the Yugoslav federation.

The Security Council is to meet Tuesday to discuss the latest Balkan flashpoint. If it fails to produce an efficient plan and action, Yugoslavia will ''invoke its legitimate right to solve the problem itself, with the use of all internationally permitted measures to fight terrorism,'' the two governments said.

Still, the two governments may have their hands tied - under the Kosovo peace agreement that ended the bombing of Yugoslavia in exchange for the entry of NATO into the province, only lightly armed Serbian police are allowed in the zone. And even if NATO were inclined to move against the ethnic Albanians in the zone, it could not, because its mandate is restricted to Kosovo.

Ahead of the Bujanovac meeting, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Lazarevic warned that the ethnic Albanian rebels were assembling military hardware and that his military intelligence was reporting an offensive planned for Dec. 27 by ''several thousand terrorists.''

''They are fixing up bridges, improving their communications, and bringing in ... mortars and howitzers,'' said Lazarevic.

Kostunica has sought to avoid the sort of crackdown led by his predecessor, Slobodan Milosevic, which triggered international condemnation, NATO intervention and effectively bolstered demands for independence by Kosovo Albanians.

Kosovo is now a crucial staging area for armed incursions by the militants into the buffer zone. Kostunica said NATO peace troops in Kosovo are responsible because ''they have not disarmed the (ethnic Albanian) terrorist organizations,'' in Kosovo.

His government also demanded in the declaration that a limited number of Yugoslav Army troops be allowed to return into Kosovo where the dwindling Serb community suffers continuing attacks by ethnic Albanian extremists.

Violence flared anew ahead of the meeting. NATO peacekeepers said that two cars in the southern part of the zone carrying Serbs were raked with gunfire Friday, leaving one of the occupants wounded in the arm.

And in a report suggesting tension might be spreading, locals in the northern part of the zone, near Kursumlija said militants shot at a Serb village late Friday. It was the first such incident reported in the north.

The villagers also said they had seen rebels digging trenches in the region.


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