Albanian guerrillas target the Serb-only police force

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Serbian policemen sit in their bunkers in a three-mile-wide buffer zone in the Presevo Valley.

Serbian policemen sit in their bunkers in a three-mile-wide buffer zone in the Presevo Valley.

Armed men in black clothes can be seen through binoculars disappearing behind the walls of an unfinished house across the river. The village of Lucane used to have 1,500 inhabitants, but most left in November when Albanian UCPMB guerrillas moved in from the surrounding hills. The distance between the positions of the two sides is several hundred yards.

Outside the village itself, the charred remains of a police jeep still sit on the bank of Binicka Morava river. Three Serbian policemen died there on Sunday, when their vehicle hit two landmines planted by the UCPMB.

"It's them [the UCPMB]," says a Serbian policeman who gives his name as Branko, pointing at a shadow that disappears into an unfinished three-storey house. "During the day, they man their checkpoints, wearing arms and uniforms. In the evening, they put on civilian clothes, sit in their cars and go to Bujanovac for a coffee. They cross our checkpoints without a problem. We know it's them. This is so weird."

The Serbian police are confronting armed ethnic Albanians of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB), who have made the 60-mile buffer zone of Presevo Valley their base, taking advantage of the fact that only lightly armed Serbian police are allowed inside under a deal struck between Nato and Belgrade in June 1999.

The Yugoslav army has its tanks dug into the ground, in positions outside the zone in line. Their cannons point towards the presumed positions of the UCPMB around Lucane.

"It would not be a problem for us to clear those armed guys out," Branko says. "It would take two to three days. It could not be done without numerous casualties among their civilians and on our side. But it is a no go for us. We have to do what the politicians say," he adds.

And right now, Serbian politicians, a new, reform-minded generation that smashed the rigid and arrogant regime of Slobodan Milosevic last year, stand by the so called "Covic Plan" for the area.

The peace plan was drawn up by leading human rights, economic and legal experts, and Nebojsa Covic, the Serbian deputy prime minister. It takes a new approach towards the problem of the ethnic Albanian population in the area of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, close to the boundary with Kosovo.

The plan calls for joint police forces of local ethnic Albanians and Serbs, in proportion to the ethnic groups' populations in the area. There are some 70,000 ethnic Albanians and 30,000 Serbs in the region. At present, the local police are all Serbs.

The plan also provides for the reintegration of ethnic Albanians into the local governing bodies and judiciary system, but falls short of giving autonomy to the region. In co-operation with international aid agencies and foreign governments, the area will get a badly needed economic boost.

In London, a senior defence source referred on Wednesday to the possibility of joint patrols with British forces and abolishing the buffer zone, saying: "I don't think we should shut our minds to that possibility. We have an open mind about all these options."

Negotiations on the plan are to start soon. Mr Covic will lead the Serbian delegation, while it is still not clear whether any of the nine ethnic Albanian representatives will be from the UCPMB. A Western diplomat said yesterday: "This is one of the most significant steps taken by Belgrade in ages."

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