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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yugoslavia Backs Down on Kosovo

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- In a bid to stave off new international sanctions, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic agreed Thursday to withdraw his special forces from Kosovo, the German and French foreign ministers said.

Meanwhile, thousands of Albanians and Serbs staged rival Kosovo protests that were marred by fistfights Thursday, adding to ethnic tensions as the potential diplomatic breakthrough emerged late Thursday.

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said Milosevic supports a negotiated settlement of the Kosovo crisis with Kosovo Albanian leaders. The Yugoslav leader claimed that some of the Serb forces that have killed about 80 ethnic Albanians in retaliation for the deaths of four Serb policemen Feb. 28 have already been withdrawn.

"His answer made us believe that all [of the forces] have not been withdrawn, but some are back in their barracks," Vedrine was reported as saying after he and German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel held talks with Milosevic.

The two ministers arrived in the capital Thursday to press Belgrade to ease up on Kosovo Albanians as demanded by world powers in an ultimatum that was expiring the same day.

On the streets, ethnic Albanians were still blaming Serb police for another fatal shooting Wednesday, further dampening prospects for a diplomatic solution of the Kosovo crisis.

And after a protest by Albanians in the Kosovo capital, Pristina, witnesses reported several incidents and brawls between unidentified Serb men and Albanians. At least four reporters working for Western media were beaten and kicked, apparently by plainclothes Serb policemen.

The scuffles came amid repeated charges by Serbian state-run media that the Albanian protesters were actually "staging a show" for numerous foreign television and photo crews currently stationed in Kosovo.

In the town of Pec, relatives of Qerim Muriqi, who was 46, said he died of an apparent chest wound after being shot Wednesday by Serb police who fired on a crowd at a peaceful demonstration in the western Kosovo town.

Serbian police Thursday denied the assault, saying the media reports are "erroneous, malicious and biased."

As many as 3,000 people in Pec filed past Muriqi's open coffin draped with a red Albanian flag, flashing the victory sign with their fingers during a wake prior to the funeral.

His weeping son Ilir, 5, said, "I want to go with pappy. Don't take him away." Another son, Besarta, 15, repeated "my father, my father" over and over, sobbing uncontrollably.

At the same time, about 3,000 Serbs marched in Pec in a loud but peaceful demonstration. At one point they stood and watched the Albanian funeral procession go by, separated by police.

In Pristina, about 25,000 ethnic Albanians held the latest in a series of rallies against what they say is "Serbian terror and repression" in Kosovo.

People sat down in silence until noon, then rang with bells and keys to signal that an international deadline had expired and that Serbia should be punished. Dozens of Serb policemen in full riot gear watched the protest but did not intervene.

At a rally two hours after the Albanian protest ended, some 30,000 Serbs, in a confrontation mood, staged a counter-protest in the Pristina city center. They were carrying Serb flags, singing Serb nationalist songs and chanting "Kosovo is Serbia."

One of the main points of the Thursday deadline, set by the United States and four European countries, was for Milosevic to withdraw his special forces from the troubled regions of Kosovo. The other points include the opening of a dialogue with Kosovo Albanians and a free access to foreign humanitarian groups to Kosovo.

Vedrine said "significant progress has been achieved but a number of things have to be confirmed" after the talks with Milosevic.

"We cannot say that we have achieved a final breakthrough. We have to be realistic," Kinkel said.

Vedrine said Milosevic still opposes the presence of a third mediating party at the talks with ethnic Albanian leaders, who have agreed to start negotiations early next week.

"The presence of a third party has not been resolved." Vedrine said, but added that Milosevic was ready to welcome a special European Union representative, but that he would not be able to join the talks.

Vedrine said they will continue to discuss the issue.

Their report to a five-nation Contact Group, which will meet in Bonn on Wednesday, will decide if the United States and Europe will introduce more sanctions against Serb-led Yugoslavia for its crackdown on minority Kosovo Albanians.

On Wednesday, visiting U.S. envoy Robert Gelbard said Kosovo Albanian leaders were "extremely serious about the need to move ahead rapidly on a political dialogue."

Fehmi Agani, an aide to ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, said Thursday that Serb-Albanian talks are likely to begin early next week.