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UPDATE: Belgrade, Skopje, West try to dampen Balkan tinder.

UPDATE: Belgrade, Skopje, West try to dampen Balkan tinder.

International peacekeepers in Kosovo are on alert for further raids by presumed ethnic Albanians on Macedonia's border as the West, Yugoslavia and Macedonia all seek a way to dampen the Balkan ethnic tinderbox.

The peacekeepers on Wednesday had their first armed encounter with the guerrillas harrying Macedonia while, not far away, a rebel landmine killed three Yugoslav soldiers.

Barely two years after fighting Yugoslavia to defend ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, the West faces being sucked into conflict once more - but this time lining up with Belgrade in trying to prevent ethnic Albanian nationalism running amok.

On Wednesday, American, Polish, Ukrainian and Lithuanian peacekeepers took control of Mijak, a town in Kosovo adjoining the flashpoint Macedonian village of Tanusevci that had been occupied by gunmen presumed to be ethnic Albanians. The peacekeepers shot and wounded two rebels.

Macedonia, which has so far kept out of a decade of ethnic blood-letting in former Yugoslavia but now fears its own Slav-Albanian ethnic mix will ignite, said it was pleased the NATO-led KFOR was doing more to stop the infiltration.

But Macedonian Foreign Minister Srgam Kerim asked the U.N. Security Council to support the deployment of KFOR peacekeepers specifically to close Kosovo's border to ethnic Albanian guerrillas infiltrating into Macedonia.

MOUNTAIN BORDERS

Diplomats say the main problem is preventing ethnic Albanian guerrillas operating freely across the unmarked mountain borders between Kosovo, Macedonia and southern Serbia.

NATO's 19 permanent ambassadors met in Brussels to discuss more radical measures without Secretary-General George Robertson, who was in Washington for talks with the Bush administration on ending the unrest.

More pressure came from a landmine attack in which three Yugoslav soldiers died north of Presevo in southern Serbia, just outside a buffer zone which runs around Kosovo's boundary with the rest of Yugoslavia and touches the Macedonian border.

For the past year, ethnic Albanian guerrillas have based themselves in the zone, from which most Yugoslav forces were banned after being pushed out of Kosovo by NATO bombing.

Robertson said at the United Nations on Tuesday that NATO was considering allowing Yugoslavia - for a decade the bugbear of the Balkans until President Slobodan Milosevic was ousted by reformers last year - to send soldiers back into the zone.

By Wednesday night there was no news of agreement among the NATO ambassadors in Brussels. Diplomats said Washington was wary of hasty action, but other allies were pressing.

TALKS WITH BELGRADE

NATO has been engaged in talks with Serbian authorities for weeks on how to engineer a peaceful end to the separatists' armed occupation of ethnic Albanian villages and roads in the Presevo Valley region of southern Serbia - and in the meantime the unrest has spilled over into adjoining Macedonia.

Diplomatic sources say Washington does not want to let Yugoslav forces back into the "ground safety zone" all at once but is ready to cede them one piece to see how they behave. Other allies agreed it might be wise to retain this leverage.

The zone was created to keep the Yugoslav Army at a safe distance as NATO peacekeepers deployed in Kosovo - in the name of ethnic Albanian rights - after the bombing campaign of 1999.

Kole Berisha, vice president of the Democratic League of Kosovo party, said that to let Yugoslav soldiers into the zone would be a "provocation, making possible an open conflict that would include the entire region".

Yugoslav Prime Minister Zoran Zizic, in New York for talks with Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Security Council on Kosovo, urged the province's ethnic Albanian community to start immediate talks with his reformist government.

Without a dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, and a parallel dialogue between Belgrade and the U.N. Mission in Kosovo, he said there was "no basis for building a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society in Kosovo".


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