Serbian withdrawal may signal deadlock with KLA

Serbs say offensive is completed, but they may never eradicate all the

Yugoslav officials appeared to take a step toward peace by announcing May 10 that they were withdrawing troops from Kosovo.

But more likely, they have reached a deadlock in their sweeping ground operation and are looking to open a diplomatic front with NATO.

Army officials said they began the withdrawal the evening of May 9 because they had completed their combat against the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). NATO officials, however, called the overture insufficient to stop the bombing campaign, now in its seventh week.

A Yugoslav Army reserve officer who has seen action in Kosovo says morale is dropping among the regular forces, and they are constantly badgered by small groups of KLA fighters.

"The KLA doesn't exist anymore as an organized army, but they still have a presence," he says. "They work in small groups, run out of the woods, fire a clip from an AK-47, and run back again."

Fixture in Kosovo

While the KLA has never been able to mount a serious offensive against the superior Serbian troops, they seem to have become a permanent part of the landscape in Kosovo. Essentially, analysts say, there is a deadlock in which neither side can be completely defeated.

The KLA can do nothing but irritate the Serbs; the Yugoslav Army can never eradicate all the KLA fighters, many of whom are farmers with guns.

"There are two reasons why [the Army] is announcing a withdrawal," says an independent analyst in Belgrade. "First they want to declare a victory for their own people, even if it has not been achieved. Second they want to make NATO take the next move."

Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav president, is pressuring NATO to ease up on the bombing, especially after the alliance hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

Mr. Milosevic has reportedly agreed to the peace initiative drawn up by the Group of Eight (G-8) countries, which includes the United States, Russia, and other leading industrial nations.

The plan calls for a UN force in Kosovo, but the size, composition, and level of armament remain a subject of debate.

"We want to make an agreement," says Goran Matic, a Yugoslav minister without portfolio. "Every principle is for discussion. We want to discuss, not make war."

Shkelzen Maliqi, an independent ethnic Albanian analyst in Macedonia, says the G-8 plan should be acceptable to the Kosovar Albanians because it is in agreement with a previous proposal drafted in Rambouillet, France. It may even be stronger, he says, because it would be backed by the United Nations Security Council.

Serbian version

In the meantime, Yugoslav officials have begun to reveal their version of events in Kosovo - and explain why there are so many ethnic Albanian refugees.

At a press conference to local and foreign journalists, they presented an elaborate theory in which they say ethnic Albanians are traveling in circles from Kosovo, to Macedonia, to Albania, and back to Kosovo. This, the Serbs say, is how the numbers are so high.

Journalists have not been able to move freely throughout Serbia to verify such claims, and ethnic Albanians have given drastically different accounts.

In addition, the officer fighting in Kosovo, who gave an interview while on home leave, gave a different version of events in Kosovo, what he called "terrain cleansing."

He says: "A unit surrounds the village, [with] one soldier at every 15 to 20 meters. And then a couple of special groups go in. I am the leader of one of those groups, with seven soldiers under me. We go from house to house, and we search everything, depending on the mission. Sometimes we're looking for terrorists, weapons, ammunition, supplies, and sometimes we just have orders to scare the people.

"No, we don't kill anyone. But all the suspicious people are taken to Nis [a Serbian city just north of Kosovo]. We occasionally beat ... someone."

NATO officials say the Serbian forces are doing far more than scaring and beating ethnic Albanians. They say the Serbs are ethnically cleansing Kosovo by massacring civilians, burning their homes, and forcing them out of the region.

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