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Yugoslavs return to buffer zone

Serbian special police
Serbian special police entered the zone first  

MUHOVAC, Yugoslavia -- Yugoslav forces are taking over the final stretch of the Kosovo buffer zone from NATO-led peacekeepers.

The buffer zone was set up after NATO's Kosovo campaign -- fought to end Yugoslav repression of ethnic Albanians in the province -- as a means of keeping Yugoslav forces out of Kosovo.

But ethnic Albanian rebels began using the buffer zone as a safe haven for launching attacks on Serbs in the area.

The rebels have until the end of May to surrender their weapons and disband as part of a ceasefire agreement brokered by NATO.

NATO-led peacekeepers beefed up their presence along Kosovo's eastern periphery on Wednesday in preparation for the Yugoslav move.

About 3,500 soldiers and police will move into the strip of land about 35 kilometres (22 miles) long by 5 km (three miles) wide if the operation goes peacefully, but up to five times that number could be deployed if required, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic said.

CNN's Chris Burns reports, the threat of violence still lingers despite disarmament agreement with rebels (May 23)

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Serbian leaders said they expected some trouble when their troops move in, but predicted it would be isolated and brief.

"I don't expect any great resistance but I don't exclude the possibility of some smaller incidents, by some smaller groups," Covic told the Reuters news agency.

The commander of Yugoslav forces in southern Serbia, General Ninoslav Krstic, told the Yugoslav state news agency Tanjug: "I don't think the extremists have the support or strength for any serious actions, or to significantly alter the situation on the ground."

The section, named Sector B, is considered the most sensitive in the buffer zone between Serbia and Kosovo because of the rebels' presence.

More than 300 rebel fighters have surrendered to KFOR troops in Kosovo, taking advantage of an amnesty offered by the peacekeepers.

Over the past two months, the Yugoslav army has already been deployed in much of the zone as part of an agreement between the Belgrade government and NATO.

As a precaution against any trouble on Thursday, peacekeepers on the outside perimeter of Kosovo next to the buffer zone closed three crossings leading into Sector B.

As in neighbouring Macedonia, the rebels say they are fighting for more rights.

The governments in both countries accuse the rebels of seeking to grab territory and attach it to Kosovo as part of plans for ultimate independence.

The zone was created in mid-1999 after 78 days of NATO bombing forced an end to a bloody crackdown on Kosovo's Albanians ordered by former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

NATO and the United Nations took control of Kosovo and created the zone to keep Yugoslav forces away from the province.

NATO began to allow the Yugoslav army to gradually return to the buffer zone after Milosevic was forced from office last October.

A rebel spokesman told CNN's Chris Burns that they intend to hand in their weapons.

"I don't expect any military action from our side. We should be in favour of peace with active participation and held by the international community," the spokesman said.

"We respect demilitarisation," rebel leader Commander Shpetim told the Associated Press news agency.

Besides handing over the weapons used by his rebel faction, Shpetim formally surrendered to the peacekeepers -- the highest-ranking rebel commander to do so.

Shpetim said his men were prepared to lay down their weapons now, "but if Belgrade continues with the policies of (former President Slobodan) Milosevic, we will organise ourselves again to defend our people."

• Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
• European Union

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