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Serbs Urged To Stay in Kosovo

June 20, 1999

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ As the last of the Serbian troops pulled out of Kosovo on Sunday, the Yugoslav government was trying to persuade thousands of fleeing Serb civilians to stay in the land considered the cradle of their culture.

Serb civilians, fearful of a newly resurgent Kosovo Liberation Army, have fled the province in southern Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic, only to find themselves unwelcome in the nation’s capital, Belgrade.

President Slobodan Milosevic, believed to see the Serb exodus as a sign of defeat and a possible pretext for an attempt to unseat him, has tried to conceal the problem. His government blocked attempts to set up tent cities and urged the Serbs to return to Kosovo.

The Serb civilians are angry at a government they see as ignoring their plight, and which has told them to camp out in parking lots, schools, parks and open fields.

``If Milosevic were here, I’d strangle him with my bare hands,″ said Punisha Rasovic, a factory worker from the Kosovo village of Belica who was stopped in the Serbian city of Kraljevo, 75 miles south of Belgrade.

The state-run Tanjug news agency reported several convoys of Serb refugees heading back Sunday.

It said more than 1,000 left in buses and cars from an area near Nis, 140 miles south of Belgrade, led by at least two government ministers. Another group of 140 refugees with police and ambulance escort left Sunday morning from Krusevac, 95 miles south of Belgrade, and a group of 40 refugees headed out from the city of Kragujevac, it said.

It also said a column of 150 vehicles left Saturday from the village of Rudare near the Kosovo border, but didn’t say how many refugees were involved or how far into Kosovo they traveled.

The independent news agency Beta had said ``reception centers″ were to be set up in two towns of northern Kosovo, Leposavic and Zubin Potok.

In the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, another destination for fleeing Serbs, local television put out a call to any Kosovo Serbs wanting to return to mass Sunday in the city of Berane, near the Kosovo border.

As Serbia sought to reverse the refugee flow, Serbian army and police were ahead of schedule on the last day of their withdrawal from the province.

French President Jacques Chirac declared the pullout complete about noon Sunday _ 12 hours ahead of the deadline under the agreement that suspended NATO’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.

In the hamlet of Livadica on Kosovo’s northern border, British peacekeepers said all that was left of the Serb force were a few stragglers waiting for trucks to come back and pick them up.

``They are getting the last bits and pieces,″ said Corp. Kieran Fortune of the Household Cavalry Regiment.

NATO tried to prevent ethnic Albanian rebels from expanding their control, installing checkpoints around Pristina and Prizren, Kosovo’s two largest cities. In Prizren, German Gen. Fritz von Korff said his troops disarmed 32 KLA fighters Saturday without incident, adding the rebels were largely cooperating with orders not to bear arms in public.

Peacekeepers were meeting with a rebel delegation to work out the terms of demilitarization stipulated in the peace plan. The rebel group intends to ``transform itself into a security force for Kosovo,″ said Mehmet Hajrizi, a top KLA leader.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he expected a deal with the KLA to be signed Sunday.

``I hope by the end of the day we will have a comprehensive agreement on demilitarization for the KLA and the handing in of weapons,″ he said in Cologne, Germany, where he is attending the summit of the world’s top leaders.

His aides said that under the deal, the KLA would have to stop carrying arms and wearing the uniforms and insignia within 90 days.

Even as the talks went on, the rebels eagerly went about establishing themselves, appointing a city administration and police force in Prizren, in southwest Kosovo, and commandeering a grocery store in Pec. Italian forces took back the store and confiscated weapons.

Nonetheless, the climate of violence persisted in some areas. Three Serbs were killed and a fourth badly wounded _ each with a shot to the forehead _ in the village of Belo Polje near Pec on Saturday. Near Gnjilane, where U.S. peacekeepers have their headquarters, Marines arrested a Serb suspected of killing one man and wounding two others in a sniper attack.

Meanwhile, the first investigators for the international war crimes tribunal began inspecting sites, and will conduct more extensive examinations into alleged atrocities early next week, said Paul Risley, a tribunal spokesman.

Among the sites under scrutiny Sunday was Velika Krusa, a town near Prizren, where peacekeepers last week found a house with 20 charred bodies believed to be ethnic Albanian victims of a mass execution. Velika Krusa was one of sites mentioned in the international war crimes tribunal’s indictment of Milosevic.

British government officials have estimated that at least 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed in Serb massacres. Some 90 mass grave sites have been reported.

NATO also began making preliminary plans for the 3,600 Russian soldiers expected to join the peacekeeping operation under Russian command in sectors assigned to the United States, France and Germany. It was not known when they would begin to arrive.

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