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Kosovo Rebels To Free 8 Yugoslavs

January 12, 1999

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Ethnic Albanian rebels have agreed to release all eight Yugoslav soldiers they have been holding hostage since their convoy strayed into rebel-held territory in Kosovo four days ago, an international official said today.

The head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Knut Vollebaek, said negotiations with the Kosovo Liberation Army have ended successfully.

``We have had positive results,″ he said at a news conference. ``We have reached an agreement with the KLA on an early release of the detainees.″

He refused to elaborate on details, including when the soldiers would be freed and whether any ethnic Albanian prisoners would be exchanged for them, as the rebels had demanded.

International monitors have been talking with both the rebels and Serbian authorities since the soldiers were seized Friday in KLA-held territory in northern Kosovo.

Officials fear Serb forces will resume their military crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists _ largely halted since they agreed to a truce in October _ if the soldiers aren’t freed soon.

Shortly before Vollebaek’s announcement, the Yugoslav army had warned the soldiers must be released ``unconditionally,″ saying otherwise it might have to use force.

``The case of kidnapping of Yugoslav army members by Albanian separatists and terrorists is a flagrant example of an insane criminal act,″ said the army.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic told Vollebaek in Belgrade on Monday that time was running out for the soldiers to be released before a major crackdown.

Yugoslav army tanks are stationed close to Stari Trg, near where the Yugoslav soldiers are being held in the village of Bajgora, poised for action if talks on their release fail.

The soldiers reportedly were being well-treated in captivity. An OSCE tape of the hostages made available to selected reporters showed them relatively upbeat.

One of the unidentified soldiers said their KLA captors had ``behaved very correctly.″

More than 1,000 people have been killed in Kosovo, which is trying to secede from Serbia and the Yugoslav federation, since February.

On Monday, a key aide to ethnic Kosovo leader Ibrahim Rugova was assassinated outside his Pristina home.

A Serb official in Kosovo, provincial information secretary Ivica Mihajlovic, called the killing of Enver Maloku ``another act of terrorists who are against peace,″ the Serbian Media Center reported.

The shooting death of the head of the province’s Kosovo Information Center, which reflects the views of Rugova, had new tension to talks aimed at securing the release of the soldiers.

``The incidents in Kosovo indicate that the province is a ticking time bomb and we could see full-scale fighting and a new wave of refugees if no political solution is found soon,″ said Kris Janowski, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency in Geneva.

He noted that shelling by government troops last weekend had displaced about 2,000 more people from their homes near Podujevo and Suva Reka.

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