The men, conscripts and reservists, returned without official authorisation on Wednesday morning from northern Kosovo after commandeering military and civilian transport, according to reliable reports reaching Belgrade. The mass desertion is said by informed sources in the capital to have thrown the government of President Slobodan Milosevic into "near panic".
According to sources in the area the desertions were set in train after trouble erupted in Alexandrovac on Monday when about 100 soldiers who had been on leave were about to return to Kosovo by bus.
Relatives and friends of the soldiers who had come to see them off started a spontaneous protest demonstration in the town centre and sent a delegation to the town's mayor, Zivota Cvetkovic, demanding that the soldiers should not be sent back to Kosovo.
The mayor agreed to address the crowd in the town's central square but when he got there he was immediately attacked and knocked to the ground.
Contrary to reports in some Western newspapers, the mayor was not lynched but escaped bruised and shaken when the crowd scattered after a soldier fired his weapon in the air, apparently by accident. The soldiers then boarded their buses and returned to Kosovo.
When they got back to their units they apparently spread news of what had happened in Alexandrovac and nearby Krusevac, where on Sunday an anti- war demonstration was staged by about 1,000 army mothers in front of the monument to the heroes of the Battle of Kosovo Polje fought against the Turks in 1389. This demonstration was sparked by the return from Kosovo of seven dead soldiers and a number of wounded.
On Tuesday night about 1,000 men serving in Kosovo decided to return home and are said to have commandeered vehicles and driven through the night without orders in a spontaneous act of desertion.
I am told that the motive for the men's decision was less the casualties they had suffered from Nato's bombing - still relatively light - but more their concern over the relatives who had been involved in public disorder in the two towns on Sunday and Monday.
The men apparently returned to their original recruitment points in Krusevac and Alexandrovac on Wednesday where negotiations with the military authorities, including the general commanding the Nis army group, took place.
The result is said to be that the soldiers had handed in their weapons and been issued with demobilisation certificates noting that they had served in Kosovo and authorising them to return to their homes.
Of particular significance is said to be the fact that many of the men come from agricultural villages around Krusevac, long a heartland of President Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party. "This shows that people there are turning away from Milosevic," one source said.
In Belgrade, informed sources are reporting deep official disquiet over the desertions, which do not yet affect the army's defensive capabilities in Kosovo.
Even before this happened, steps had apparently been taken to prevent serious unrest among garrison forces near the capital, some of which have been subjected to heavy Nato bombing. Soldiers serving near Belgrade were reported recently to have been ordered to hand in most of the ammunition in their possession. They had earlier been issued with 150 rounds per rifle.
Meanwhile, heavy police reinforcements, including military police with dogs, have been brought to Krusevac from Nis, but the situation remains tense. It is not clear whether the return of the soldiers will calm the atmosphere or if disaffection will now spread to other towns with substantial numbers of conscripts serving in Kosovo, such as Valjevo and Kragujevac.
Julian Manyon is a special correspondent for ITN in YugoslaviaReuse content