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Amid uneasy truce, Yugoslavs re-enter buffer zone

Two years after he had to dodge bombs raining down from NATO warplanes, Sgt. Dragomir Kalinic of the Yugoslav army found himself shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries Wednesday morning with a British soldier from NATO's forces.

"He was a sergeant, too, and he gave me a map," said Kalinic as he and comrades from the 3rd Yugoslav Army dug in to positions high atop a ridge called Sarkuca, overlooking the bucolic beauty of the Presevo Valley.

Kalinic and his British counterpart were helping each other out as the Yugoslav army took its first tentative steps back into a three-mile-wide buffer zone between Kosovo and Serbia from which Serb forces have been barred since the end of the Kosovo war in June 1999.

NATO decided to allow the return of the Yugoslav forces in a bid to rein in escalating attacks by ethnic Albanian fighters seeking to provoke a new Balkan crisis and ultimately pry Albanian-dominated Kosovo away from Yugoslavia.

Like other Yugoslav soldiers who lost friends in the 78-day war, Kalinic had to swallow hard as former enemies supervised his return to a part of his own country.

"Personally, I am taking this hard. When someone bombs you, it's hard to cooperate with them so soon," he said. But he prides himself on his professionalism and, he said, "Times have changed."

Times may have changed, but animosities in this volatile region have not. A half-mile down the narrow, muddy dirt road where Kalinic and other lightly-armed Yugoslav soldiers drove their trucks and jeeps, Azem Azemi stood in the middle of a little hillside village called Norca and railed against the return of a force that is hated by local ethnic Albanians.

"Why would we want them, why do we need them?" asked Azemi, a 50-year-old farmer shouldering a burlap sack of fertilizer. "That's the army that was in Kosovo, making massacres."

Azemi said there is only one Serb among the 900 people in his village. The rest are ethnic Albanians, and they fear and resent the return of the Yugoslav army, known colloquially as the VJ. Villagers say that during the war, Serb forces killed five refugees from Kosovo in the hills above the village, the hills where the Yugoslav army was settling in as invited guests of the NATO forces that liberated Kosovo.

The NATO-led peacekeeping troops in Kosovo hope the gradual return of Yugoslav troops will stabilize the buffer zone and nearby areas where ethnic Albanian rebels have had free reign for nearly two years. But there are some who fear the returning Serbs will serve only as targets for the rebels, and that the ethnic hatred that stoked the crisis in the region will feed on the new proximity of ancient enemies.

The rebels want the Presevo Valley area of Serbia, which is home to some 70,000 ethnic Albanians, to become part of Kosovo. Wednesday they honored a weeklong cease-fire they agreed to on Monday, but it is hard to find anyone who believes the rebels are doing anything but waiting for more Serb soldiers to flood the area before resuming their attacks.

The Italian officer commanding the KFOR peacekeeping troops in Kosovo, Lt. Col. Carlo Cabigiosu, pronounced the return of several hundred Yugoslav soldiers to a small chunk of the buffer zone a success. The three-square-mile area is where Kosovo, Serbia and Macedonia meet.

"Nothing happened," Cabigiosu said.

But there was fighting further west along the border of Macedonia and Kosovo, where a separate group of ethnic Albanian rebels say they are fighting to claim part of Macedonia as Kosovo. In Kale, a village just north of Tetevo, Macedonia's second largest city, rebels attacked a police outpost, wounding at least 14 people, including 11 police. The shooting took place as some 5,000 ethnic Albanians held a rally in Tetevo, cheering the echoes of gunfire in the distance and underscoring the popular support for the rebels.

In the Presevo Valley, where more than 30 Serb police have been killed by rebels in the past year, there was no sound of gunfire, and Yugoslav soldiers found no mines on the roads they traveled. But few expect it to remain quiet for long.