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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Combats Suspicions in Kosovo

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- The commander of the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Kosovo on Thursday urged suspicious ethnic Albanians to differentiate between his troops and alleged Russian volunteers said to have aided the Serbs in their anti-Albanian crackdown.

Major General Valery Yevtukovich said there was no evidence putting such Russian volunteers in Kosovo, as claimed by ethnic Albanians. But even if there were some, "one cannot connect the Russian [peacekeeping] contingent with volunteers who might have participated'' in the conflict, he told reporters.

"Therefore, we are not responsible for the persons who took part in these activities, and these persons cannot be connected to the Russian'' peacekeepers, he said.

The work of the Russian troops has been hampered by intense ethnic Albanian hostility that has translated into a prolonged blockade of the main road leading to Orahovac in southwestern Kosovo. The ethnic Albanians' blockade is meant to prevent the Russians from establishing a base there.

Yevtukovich, who said the Russian contingent has reached a total strength of 3,600, expressed hope the standoff at Orahovac would be solved soon.

In other developments related to Russian participation in the Kosovo peacekeeping effort, Bernard Kouchner, the head of the United Nations mission in Kosovo, was in Moscow on Thursday to try to win Russia's support for the Kosovo Corps. The Corps is a new civilian organization that will recruit former fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army, once they are declared demilitarized Sunday.

The Russians have warned they may even reconsider their peacekeeping role in Kosovo because, they claim, Kosovo is slipping away from Yugoslavia, nominally still in control of the southern province.

They back Serbia in their criticism of the planned new unit, saying it basically perpetuates the KLA - which continues to demand Kosovo's independence from Serbia - in a new guise.

Russia has made clear it insists on complete disbanding and demilitarization of the rebel army. UN and NATO officials have stressed that the Kosovo Corps will be civilian in nature, although members will wear uniforms. The Serbs and Russians see the new force as part of international attempts to weaken Serbia's hold on the province and also complain that the United Nations and NATO-led peacekeepers have done nothing to protect Serbs and allied minorities from ethnic Albanian acts of revenge.

The violence is meant to avenge the Serb crackdown on the ethnic Albanian majority that claimed more than 10,000 lives before it was ended in June as part of a Kosovo peace settlement forced by NATO bombing of Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic.

A group helping transform the Kosovo Liberation Army will begin accepting applications for the Kosovo Corps on Monday.

The International Organization for Migration has already registered 10,700 former KLA fighters for "a reintegration program aimed at helping them to return to a normal civilian life'' and for possible membership in the Kosovo Corps, a recent statement said.

The Kosovo Corps will number 5,000 members - 3,000 who will serve full-time and the others as part-time reservists. Although others are eligible, including Serbs, the overwhelming majority of Corps members are expected to be former KLA fighters.