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Mortars Fired at Serb Police

December 4, 2000

LUCANE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Ethnic Albanian militants fired mortars at a Serbian police patrol in a tense area next to Kosovo in the first reported breach of an unofficial cease-fire, police said Monday.

There were no casualties in the Sunday incident, said police Col. Novica Zdravkovic. He blamed the attack on ethnic Albanian ``terrorists″ operating in the buffer zone along the Kosovo boundary with southern Serbia.

A key ally of President Vojislav Kostunica warned Monday that Yugoslavia must be prepared to use force if peaceful efforts fail to persuade ethnic Albanians to stop the attacks.

``Time is working against us,″ Zoran Djindjic told the Beta news agency. ``The terrorists have dug in along the whole boundary and there is a status quo there. Each day that passes strengthens their position and weakens ours. Therefore, we have to act with determination and swiftly.″

Djindjic voiced similar warnings on Sunday _ but he was quickly contradicted by Kostunica, who said it was not the time for ``war cries″ and urged restraint.

Although allied in the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, Djindjic and Kostunica have been at odds since the collapse of Slobodan Milosevic’s authoritarian regime in October. Djindjic is expected to become Serbian prime minister after Dec. 23 elections in Yugoslavia’s main republic.

Their recent statements have suggested a possible rift in the Belgrade leadership over how to deal with the rash of attacks by ethnic Albanian militants in the Presevo Valley on the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The crisis has presented a difficult challenge to the new Yugoslav government. It must show the public, police and army it is willing and able to defend the country, while avoiding the brutality that marked Milosevic’s crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo.

The crackdown led to international isolation and a 78-day NATO bombing campaign, which ended with Yugoslavia handing Kosovo over to the United Nations and a NATO-led peacekeeping force in June 1999.

Under the 1999 peace agreement, a three-mile-wide buffer zone was established between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia. Ethnic Albanian militants from Kosovo have been operating in the zone in an attempt to drive the Serbs from predominantly Albanian areas.

Sami Azemi, a leader of the rebels, said his men will not retreat or compromise, urging Serbian police to observe an unofficial cease-fire that has been in place in recent days.

``For the moment, our soldiers are very vigilant, and they are watching every movement of the Serbian police and army. If they try to come toward our positions, they will be confronted with fire, with all the power that we have,″ Azemi said.

``I would appeal to the Serb side that after they agreed to the cease-fire they should respect it, otherwise confrontation is inevitable,″ he added.

Referring to what he called ``Djindjic’s threats,″ Azemi said, ``The moment we took up weapons we knew we would be threatened. And we will not put down our weapons without a solution to the problem of this region.″

Kostunica, meanwhile, warned Monday that an independence declaration by ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo itself could touch off new wars in the Balkans.

In an interview with the Athens, Greece, daily Ta Nea, Kostunica insisted that any attempt to change the region’s borders would trigger violence.

``Any change in the existing borders would drive us to new conflicts, new wars and new adventures in the Balkans,″ Kostunica said.

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