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Serb Troops Seen Leaving Kosovo

May 13, 1999

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Smiling and waving to the cameras, about 120 Yugoslav troops left Kosovo in a convoy of buses and trucks Thursday in what Western authorities said was an insignificant move and possibly a sham.

The soldiers broke into grins for foreign reporters who were driven to Merdare on the main road to Nis, a military stronghold in southern Serbia. The pullout was evidently a public bid to counter widespread disbelief of a Yugoslav withdrawal order last Sunday.

``It’s the easiest thing in the world to put a few tanks on the border, invite a TV crew and say `look I’m withdrawing,′ and as soon as the TV crew goes back to Belgrade, the tanks just go back over the border,″ NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said in Brussels, Belgium.

Yugoslavia, meanwhile, said more than 1,200 people have been killed and 5,000 hurt by NATO airstrikes over the past seven weeks, the U.N.’s top human rights official reported after being snubbed by Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.

There was no way to independently verify the numbers, though Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic told the United Nations on April 24 that about 1,000 people had been killed and thousands hurt by NATO airstrikes.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson said Jovanovic reported the new toll during a meeting in Belgrade but that Milosevic refused to see her.

As foreign reporters saw the military convoy leave Kosovo, a Serb army officer there blamed constant NATO bombing for the ``slow pace″ of withdrawals since Yugoslavia announced a partial pullout.

The Pristina Army Corps commander, Gen. Vladimir Lazarevic, told reporters brought 130 miles south from Belgrade that ``a certain amount of time″ would be needed to bring the forces back to their barracks as ordered.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Richard Bridges said ``a withdrawal of 120 troops does not come close to meeting NATO’s five conditions,″ which include a return of 780,000 ethnic Albanian refugees expelled from Kosovo since March.

Soon after the troop departure witnessed by reporters, NATO planes screamed over Nis, bombing main roads and the local TV building, the private Beta news agency reported. A security guard was injured.

Nis Mayor Zoran Zivkovic, a leader of the opposition Democratic Party, urged Milosevic to ``proclaim what is our plan with Kosovo and to submit a list of costs in lives and time.″

In London, British officials said there was heavy fighting between the KLA and Serb forces in Kosovo, and that rebels held small pockets of land throughout the province.

``In some cases, they’ve retaken ground from the Serbs,″ said Adm. Sir Ian Garnett, Britain’s joint chief of operations.

The Yugoslav military had explained its initial troop withdrawal announcement by claiming the KLA was beaten.

Western officials were immediately skeptical about soldiers in berets and camouflage uniforms leaving Merdare, saying there was no evidence of a large-scale pullout with heavy weaponry and that Milosevic’s forces often are rotated in and out of Kosovo.

White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said it fell far short of NATO’s demands for a complete withdrawal, that the pullout was carefully staged, and ``will not fool many.″

President Clinton said Kosovo Albanians ``must be able to return home and live in safety. For this to happen, the Serb forces must leave. Partial withdrawals can only mean continued civil war.″

NATO has stepped up bombing raids on the some 40,000 Serb troops and military police deployed in Kosovo, part of Yugoslavia’s dominant Serb republic.

The alliance said it is now able to concentrate fire on Milosevic’s forces in Kosovo, where they began their crackdown in February 1998 _ 13 months before NATO intervened after repeated reports of atrocities and mass killings.

Refugees arriving Thursday at Blace, on the Macedonia-Kosovo border, spoke of severe food shortages among the remaining ethnic Albanians. They also told of a heavy police presence, with Kosovo Serbs shopkeepers refusing to sell food to ethnic Albanians.

Yugoslav media reported fresh attacks on targets across Serbia, including one that sent huge plumes of smoke from the Serb TV building in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia’s second-largest city.

In the Kosovo capital of Pristina, the Serb Media Center said missiles rained down near the train station at Prizren, Kosovo’s second-biggest city, setting surrounding buildings ablaze.

NATO also targeted the Pristina airport at Slatina, which is used by the Yugoslav air force and is believed to include extensive underground storage facilities.

NATO is demanding not only a total withdrawal of Milosevic’s forces from Kosovo and the return of refugees but the deployment of an international peacekeeping force, a big sticking point in diplomatic negotiations that include Russia.

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