Serbs are trapped in Kosovo stand-off

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The Independent Online
MORE THAN 300 Yugoslav police backed by armoured vehicles were camped out yesterday on the edge of territory held by Kosovo rebels, awaiting the release of a Serb soldier held by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

The tense stand-off followed a shootout in which two Serbian brothers were killed. The soldier, the 21-year-old son of one of the brothers shot by the KLA, and about 11 other Serbs were reported to be trapped in the small Serb enclave of Mijalic, held by the KLA.

Hundreds of Albanian villagers living in the area began to leave their homes seeking shelter elsewhere as the afternoon wore on. They feared military action by police and hundreds of Yugoslav soldiers, backed by tanks, deployed on the hills nearby.

The civilians, mostly women and children carrying plastic bags, walked purposefully across fields and railway tracks seeking refuge with friends and relatives. They said that more than 1,000 people were leaving the area.

"We are afraid there will be an attack here," said Zymer, who was driving out a tractor-trailer loaded with women and children. "We have had no problems with the police in the past but the children are scared." His home village, Durvar, is shared by Serbs and Albanians. "We speak to each other - it's not too friendly, but there were no problems," he said.

According to international monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Radivoje Mitrovic and his brother Ljubisa were shot dead when they tried to run a KLA check-point in the village of Mijalic.

In Moscow, meanwhile, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, failed to gain a commitment from Russia to contribute troops to a future Nato-led peacekeeping operation in Kosovo.

Russia and Britain had agreed jointly to make sure that the Serbs and Kosovo Albanians turned up at the next round of the peace talks on 15 March and to ensure they did not breach the ceasefire in the meantime.

However, Russia's foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, was sticking to Moscow's formula that, since Yugoslavia was a sovereign state, Russian troops could only go into Kosovo at Belgrade's invitation.

"Speaking for myself," said Mr Cook, "I would warmly welcome a Russian presence in any international force necessary to implement a peace agreement in Kosovo. It is for Russia to decide whether it wants to take part.

"But Russia was a valued partner in Bosnia and would be a valued partner in Kosovo," he said.

The Foreign Secretary repeated that Britain was willing to commit 8,000 troops.

Mr Cook said Russian troops had worked alongside the Nato command structure in Bosnia and there had been no problem.

A similar arrangement could be worked out for Kosovo.

t In a move certain to exacerbate tensions with Serbia, Montenegro announced it is unilaterally abolishing entry visa requirements.

The decision allows visa-free travel into Montenegro, which along with Serbia forms the Yugoslav federation.

Serbia insists on visas from foreigners and has already rejected numerous appeals to relax the requirements, in spite of the damage it has inflicted on Montenegro's once-prosperous tourism sector.

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