The head of the Yugoslav Army, Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, spent Tuesday reviewing tank and artillery positions in the wind-swept hills overlooking southern Serbia's Presevo Valley.
The turrets are trained on several ethnic-Albanian villages that were occupied nearly two weeks ago by a well-armed regional rebel force, the Presevo Medvedja and Bujanovac Liberation Army, known by its Albanian-language initials, UCPMB.
In a major offensive, the rebels drove out lightly armed Serb police, leaving the sensitive buffer zone between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia effectively under rebel control. Four policemen were killed in a clash with the rebels last week.
Fearing Serb reprisals, ethnic Albanian villagers fled for the safety of Kosovo. United Nations refugee officials estimate some 2,000 have arrived so far.
The border crisis presented Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica with the first test of his leadership since taking office less than two months ago. The differences between Mr. Kostunica, a moderate nationalist, and ousted Balkan strongman Slobodan Milosevic were evident as the new leader attempted to defuse an explosive situation and committed to finding a diplomatic solution.
Kostunica also had to allay the fears of Serbs in the ethnically mixed border district of Bujanovac. They are furious that rebels now control a piece of Serb territory. "It's not enough that Albanians got all of Kosovo. Now they want a piece of Serbia as well," says Rade, a Bujanovac resident.
International peacekeepers in Kosovo, especially the Americans, have made clear that Yugoslavia would face serious consequences if its Army moved inside the security zone to fight the guerrillas. The agreement that ended last year's NATO bombing campaign allows only lightly armed Serb police to patrol the area.
Kostunica sharply criticized the NATO-led KFOR force for allowing the rebels to smuggle heavy weapons into the security zone, but pledged to stick by the accord. "We have abided by the international agreements, but Kosovo peacekeepers are not doing their job."
Though critical of the West's role in Kosovo, Kostunica is also careful not to strain his newly established diplomatic ties.
The situation remains potentially explosive. Serb forces have threatened to enter the security zone to remove the rebels if Kosovo peacekeepers don't act. But a Monday-night deadline passed without incident.
A KFOR spokesman said on Tuesday that the rebels and Serbian authorities had agreed to suspend fighting in the Kosovo-Serbia boundary region indefinitely. KFOR encouraged both sides to seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis, he added.
The normally peaceful Bujanovac, just five miles from the security zone, now looks like a town preparing for war. Tanks and busloads of special forces rumble through town, while machine-gun-toting police chat with citizens on street corners. Crowds of Serbs cheered "Serbia" as heavy artillery rolled along main streets this week. Ethnic-Albanians, who constitute 65 percent of the population, were nowhere to be seen.
A crowd of nearly 1,000 Serbs gathered in the cold to catch a glimpse of Mr. Kostunica Monday. They wanted action. They demanded guns. After meeting with the head of the Yugoslav Army and local leaders, the president addressed the crowd, stressing that Bujanovac would be defended.
But Kostunica later told journalists that diplomacy was the only weapon that could be used to disarm the guerrillas. "This is a multiethnic community, and cohabitation must be preserved," he said.
Local ethnic-Albanians complain that they are not equal citizens. "We don't have jobs, there are no Albanian police officers in this majority Albanian town, and we are subject to harassment and provocations by Serb police," says Shaip Kamberi, a local Albanian leader.
Such complaints contributed to the formation of the rebel army nearly a year ago. The movement was formed by locals, but supported by former members of the disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army.
Most Yugoslav analysts are impressed by Kostunica's handling of his first crisis. "Our policies have been impetuous over the past decade under Slobodan Milosevic. We must correct the militarized public opinion and get the nation used to diplomatic solutions," says Dusko Batakovic, a professor of political science.
In further contrast to the previous regime, Serb leaders acknowledge the neglect of Albanian citizens in southern Serbia. Nebojsa Covic, a leader in the transition government, met with local Albanian leaders and stressed the need to rectify the mistakes of the past. "This is an area that was neglected by the former regime, which greatly contributed to the current crisis. Serbia now has a democratic government, and we will find democratic solutions to our problems," Mr. Covic said.
Material from the wire services was used for this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society