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Kosovo Talks Welcomed

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

MONS, Belgium, May 20, 1998 – As storm clouds loomed ever larger over Kosovo, President Clinton welcomed news that talks were set to begin between Serb government leaders and ethnic Albanians.

"This is a sober first step toward resolving a very dangerous conflict that clearly has the potential to spill over into neighboring countries and destabilize the region," Clinton said in a May 13 statement. Much needs to be done "before all the peoples of Kosovo enjoy the peace, security and human rights they deserve," he said.

Kosovo, a former "autonomous" Yugoslavian province now part of Serbia, borders Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM. Serb authorities withdrew much of Kosovo's autonomy in 1989, and tensions have simmered ever since with the ethnic Albanians, who comprise about 90 percent of Kosovo's population. Violence sparked in February when Serbian police attacked Kosovo Liberation Army strongholds, killing dozens of civilians.

U.S. negotiators brought both sides together May 15 for the first talks since the crisis erupted. Slobodan Milosevic, president of the federation of Serbia and Montenegro, met with Kosovo-Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova in Belgrade. Further talks are scheduled to be held in Pristina in Kosovo.

NATO authorities are closely watching what a senior NATO military official described as "a downward spiral." The problem in Kosovo, he said, is "intensifying and becoming increasingly more intractable. As casualties and incidents occur on both sides and as international agencies gear up to funnel weapons and training into the Kosovo Liberation Army, the crisis is becoming increasingly difficult to resolve."

NATO officials are determined to help prevent escalation of the crisis, particularly the introduction of illegal weapons. NATO-led stabilization forces in Bosnia recently stepped up border monitoring to prevent illicit traffic in weapons or personnel. The alliance is also helping Albania and FYROM beef up their border security. A Partnership for Peace exercise is scheduled for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in September to demonstrate solidarity among allies and partner nations and to provide practical training for FYROM armed forces.

"We're not ruling out taking further steps toward conflict prevention or containment," the NATO military official said, acknowledging that a reconnaissance team recently surveyed the border area in northern Albania and reported its findings and recommendations to the North Atlantic Council. "Now it will be up to the political leaders in the alliance to evaluate the military facts and judgments we submitted," the official said.

Although he would not discuss the report, the official said the team encountered mountainous terrain that would be difficult for vehicles. "It requires movement on foot or by helicopter when the weather permits, but there are lots of cloudy days up there and the area is lacking in the infrastructure that's commonly assumed throughout much of Europe," he said. A further complication is that many Albanians who live along the border have relatives in Kosovo.

The official also said NATO has confirmed information that hundreds of Serbian special police are operating in Kosovo. "We know they have taken some losses. We've seen some of the evidence of the kinds of weapons and tactics they're using," he said.

Serbian police are using what NATO officials consider military weaponry, the official said. "They're not using .38-caliber revolvers and batons, which is what we would consider police weaponry. They're into antiaircraft weaponry and other things -- heavy machine guns, grenades, mortars and so forth. There are reports artillery has been used."

On the other side, the Kosovo Liberation Army has small arms and automatic weapons, some light mortars, and possibly other more powerful weapons, the official said. About 400,000 weapons taken out of Albania last year during political unrest there remain unaccounted for. Some of these weapons may have found their way into Kosovo, the official said.

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