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Holbrooke Meets With Kosovo Rebels

June 24, 1998

JUNIK, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Driving past charred homes and devastated villages, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke traveled into the heart of the Kosovo conflict Wednesday to talk with rifle-toting ethnic Albanian militants, bringing the separatist fighters into international efforts to stop an all-out war.

Against a backdrop of explosions and gunfire, Holbrooke declared it was time for Serb security forces to ``get out of here.″

His tour of heavy fighting areas in the secessionist Yugoslav province highlighted a shuttle diplomacy mission that many see as a last-ditch bid to stop the conflict before NATO intervenes.

More than 300 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, have died since fighting escalated in March between Serb-led army and police forces and the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army.

NATO sent jets zooming over the region earlier this month to persuade Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to stop the campaign against the rebels, but fighting continues unabated.

On a nearly 200-mile tour of western Kosovo, Holbrooke rode with three ethnic Albanian officials and had protection for his 14-car convoy from a truckload of Serb security forces carrying automatic rifles.

He played down his talks with two KLA leaders in the town of the besieged western town of Junik, calling them only unofficial meetings with ``armed men, some of whom were in UCK uniforms″ _ a reference to the Albanian-language initials for the KLA.

But observers saw the unprecedented meeting as tacit recognition that the fast-growing KLA, which has the support of increasing numbers of Kosovo’s majority Albanians, must be taken into account in any political settlement.

In a scene sure to anger Milosevic, Holbrooke shook hands with the fighters in Junik, near the Albanian border, and posed for photographs with the uniformed men holding machine guns. Along with two other U.S. diplomats, he met with them for 45 minutes, seated on the floor of a house inside the village.

``These people are beleaguered and they don’t have supplies,″ he said afterward. ``The situation is explosive. Serb security forces are all over the place.″

Serbian civilians along the route greeted the convoy with the three-finger Serbian victory sign. Serbia is the dominant of two republics remaining in Yugoslavia; in Kosovo, ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs by 9-to-1.

After telling Milosevic on Tuesday that time for a peaceful end to the violence is running out, Holbrooke planned to talk Thursday with the president again and a Russian diplomat before returning to Kosovo and meeting with ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova.

But if Milosevic were close to agreeing to a cease-fire and pullback as the West demands, Holbrooke, who helped persuade him to sign a peace settlement to end the war in Bosnia, gave no signs.

``This is all part of a process,″ he told CNN before heading back to Belgrade late Wednesday. ``I wouldn’t want to get your expectations up that we’re going to have any breakthroughs, because the situation is quite difficult.″

Holbrooke and the U.N. and other officials who accompanied him also toured the towns of Djakovica and badly shelled Decane, where he cited the burned-out houses with missing roofs as evidence of Serb wrongdoing.

This is ``the kind of action we saw earlier in this part of the world,″ he said, a reference to Bosnia. ``The Serbs should get out of here, and the original inhabitants should come back and rebuild their houses with government help.″

A shootout between Serb forces and KLA fighters erupted around a convoy of reporters that was a half-mile away from Holbrooke, and graphic evidence of fighting was plentiful throughout the trip. Explosions and gunfire could be heard, and Serb armored personnel carriers and military convoys were on the road.

In Brussels Wednesday, Rugova appealed for NATO to use its military might to end the worsening violence.

NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana met Rugova and insisted Serbs and Albanians return to the negotiating table without conditions. Solana also stressed the NATO allies support a return to autonomy in Kosovo, but not the independence sought by both Rugova and Albanian militants.

In 1989, Milosevic revoked Kosovo’s broad autonomy and has since ruled the province with virtual martial law.

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