Thousand YU soldiers await UN invite to return to Kosovo
Pirot, Yugoslavia, Sep 4, 2000 -- (AFP) They are the "Kosovo peace unit" -- 999 Yugoslav army soldiers and Serb policemen, ready to return to Kosovo under the auspices of a UN mandate and in cooperation with the NATO-led KFOR multinational forces.
On Friday, these soldiers and policemen, members of the Third Special Unit of the Yugoslav Army, appeared in public for the first time at a training exercise on the Petlovo Bojiste hills, 14 kilometers (eight miles) southwest of Pirot, in eastern Serbia.
Under torrential rain and in terrain resembling northern and western Kosovo, members of the unit paraded in front of the top brass of the Yugoslav Army and Serbian police, as part of an exercise named "Return 2000".
The exercises included defense and counter-attack measures against a terrorist group, demining minefields, and unarmed individual combat.
But the real prospects of this unit returning to Kosovo any time soon remain slim, although it has in fact been created in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 1244 and the Military-Technical Agreement between the Yugoslav army and NATO signed in June 1999.
These two documents brought an end to NATO's air war on Yugoslavia, the retreat of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo and the arrival of KFOR in the province.
The return of the Yugoslav Army and the Serb police to Kosovo is included in the texts, but under the conditions of a personnel limited to 999 soldiers and policemen, and a limited mandate.
The mandate includes demining, cooperation with international forces, presence at key border crossings with Albania and Macedonia, as well as the protection of Serbian sacred monuments and locations in the province.
At Petlovo Bojiste, the army's chief of staff, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, said the Yugoslav Army would not return to Kosovo without an agreement with the UN.
"We accomplished all the duties of resolution 1244 and the military accord, and we do not want to be accused of violation of these documents," he told the press.
"This is a peace unit, it does not have ill intentions, nor conquering intentions," the general said.
He warned however that "the tolerance and endurance of the Serb people in Kosovo has its limits" and that the UN "was not able to create conditions for security for its members and for the population" of the province.
Serbs and other non-Albanians in Kosovo have been victims of almost daily violence since the retreat of the Yugoslav army and the arrival of KFOR in the province in June 1999.
The widespread violence has forced more than 200,000 people, mosly Serbs, to flee Kosovo and take refuge in the rest of Serbia.
Yugoslav officers argue that a return of army units to Kosovo would help improve the security situation of the 110,000 Serbs remaining today in the province, although some observers fear Yugoslav soldiers would just become the target of ethnic Albanian extremists.
At Petlovo Bojiste, as Pavkovic symbolically handed a military flag to the commander of the Third Special Unit, General Momir Vukadinovic, an extremely loud clap of thunder roared above the hills.
"It's a sign from God," an army colonel said.
But there are few signs of an imminent authorization by KFOR or the United Nations for a deployment of the Yugoslav unit.
"The Yugoslav Army has prepared this unit like any other army in the world would in the situation, but its deployment is a political matter," said Italian General Biagio di Grazia, an observer of the exercise.
The Yugoslav Army maintains regular weekly contacts with KFOR, but contacts between Yugoslav political leaders and those of NATO countries heading the KFOR command are almost non-existent after NATO's bombing and Belgrade's isolation by the West.