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Tuesday, 6 February, 2001, 23:55 GMT
Serbia offers talks with rebels
Map of southern Serbia
The Serbian government has announced a plan to end the violence in the buffer zone between Kosovo and Serbia, the scene of heavy fighting in the last 48 hours.

It [Presevo Valley] is an integral part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

Serb Government spokesman Ivan Bender
The plan, adopted at a cabinet meeting in Belgrade, opens the door to talks with ethnic Albanian separatists.

But Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic ruled out the possibility of increased autonomy for the Presevo valley.

The move follows Monday's fierce artillery battles between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian separatists in the zone, the heaviest since last year.

A convoy of diplomats visiting the area on Tuesday, including American ambassador William Montgomery and the US envoy to the Balkans, James Perdew, were forced to retreat near an Albanian-held village after hearing gunfire.

Mr Djindjic said the rights of ethnic Albanians in the zone would be respected, and measures taken to integrate them into Serbia's social and political life - though he said they would not be accorded "special status".

He also said the government would work to improve the economy of the impoverished Presevo region.

Yugoslav patrol a border security zone
Yugoslav troops have been watching events across the Kosovo border
The government's plans also include proposals for observers to supervise the demilitarisation of the buffer zone, where more than 1,000 Albanian rebels are known to operate.

Earlier, a spokesman for the ethnic Albanian separatist group, the UCPMB, had said agreement had been reached "to unify our strategy and prepare a platform for possible negotiations with the Serbs".

Fierce fighting

Monday night saw some of the fiercest fighting in the Presevo valley since the end of the 1999 Kosovo conflict. The Yugoslav army exchanged artillery fire for several hours across the internationally-imposed buffer zone next to the border with Kosovo.

Reports from the area say hundreds of Serb villagers have been fleeing from the fighting.

Kosovo, which remains sovereign Yugoslav territory, is currently under UN administration, but most of its Albanian majority population favour independence from Yugoslavia.

Known by Albanians as "eastern Kosovo", the Presevo Valley includes three towns with a predominantly ethnic Albanian population - Presevo, Bujanovac and Medveja.

It has been at the heart of violent clashes between Serb police and the UCPMB.

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See also:

29 Jan 01 | Europe
Kostunica warns of fresh fighting
27 Nov 00 | Europe
Kostunica demands Nato help
02 Feb 01 | Europe
Guerrillas threaten fragile peace
29 Nov 00 | Europe
Presevo's uneasy peace
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