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Wednesday, 7 February, 2001, 22:17 GMT
Kosovo rebels accept peace talks
Ethnic Albanian rebels in Presevo Valley
Rebel clashes with Serb forces have intensified
Ethnic Albanian militants in southern Serbia say they have accepted Belgrade's offer of peace talks to end increasing violence near the border with the Serbian province of Kosovo.

But the rebels, who want UN-administered Kosovo to secede from Serbia, said the talks could only take place if an international mediator were involved.

The ethnic Albanians have appointed a nine-member negotiating team but no date has been set for talks with the Serbian Government.

Marshal Igor Sergeyev
Marshal Sergeyev is due to visit Kosovo

Belgrade's peace plan was announced on Tuesday. It is aimed at ending fighting in the Presevo Valley in southern Serbia - a buffer zone between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia.

The latest peace moves came as the Russian Defence Minister, Igor Sergeyev, was visiting Belgrade. He gave his backing to the peace efforts during talks with his Yugoslav counterpart Slobodan Krapovic and Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica.

The ethnic Albanians are demanding that Albanian-inhabited areas of southern Serbia become part of Kosovo.

Sovereignty dispute

The rebel movement grew out of ethnic Albanian opposition to Serbian control in the buffer zone, which was created as part of the deal that ended Nato's 78-day bombing campaign in 1999.

There are estimated to be up to 1,600 fighters in the rebel force, known as the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB).

According to the Yugoslav news agency Tanjug, the government peace plan envisages a three-stage, internationally-monitored, process during which the rights of the ethnic Albanians will be improved to match international standards - but only once they give up their drive for independence.

Marshal Sergeyev reiterated Russian support for keeping Kosovo as part of the Yugoslav Federation, saying it was important for the sake of long-term security in the Balkans.

Shifting ties

A BBC correspondent in Belgrade, Paul Anderson, says Marshal Sergeyev has been trying to cement the traditionally close ties between Russia and Yugoslavia. Relations between the two have drifted somewhat since Slobodan Milosevic was ousted from power in Belgrade.

The two sides signed a military agreement revitalising co-operation between their armies, and they discussed the future of European security.

Russia believes Nato's tendency to act unilaterally without the approval of the United Nations Security Council, as demonstrated during the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, is highly damaging to Europe's collective security interests.

But Belgrade is not about to cosy up to Moscow, however much the Russians might wish it, our correspondent says.

He says Yugoslavia now leans towards Western European political organisations and is not about to spoil its chances of integration by denouncing Europe's principal defence body.

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See also:

06 Feb 01 | Europe
Serbia offers talks with rebels
29 Jan 01 | Europe
Kostunica warns of fresh fighting
02 Oct 00 | Europe
Russia's role in Yugoslavia
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