NATO is considering allowing Yugoslav soldiers to help keep ethnic Albanian "extremists" out of Macedonia, where guerrilla activity has picked up markedly over the past week, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said on Tuesday.
"We are looking very closely now at the possible decision to allow Yugoslav forces into the ground safety zone along the border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and I hope a decision on that will be taken this week," he said.
The ground safety zone is a three-mile (five km) buffer area in southern Serbia, set up in 1999 to prevent Belgrade's troops from launching surprise attacks against NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo.
It runs around the outside of Kosovo's internal boundary with the rest of Yugoslavia, from the Montenegrin border in the northwest to the Macedonian border in the southeast.
But Albanian extremists have used the corridor to launch attacks in Serbia and most recently in Macedonia, which NATO fears could trigger a new Balkan conflict. Ethnic Albanians make up about a fourth of Macedonia's 2 million people.
Yugoslav Prime Minister Zoran Zizic, visiting the United Nations, praised Robertson's proposal, saying that to allow his soldiers back into the buffer zone would demonstrate a new spirit of cooperation between the Yugoslav army and NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo, which is under U.N. administration.
"A return of the Yugoslav soldiers to the border will help secure those borders as they know the terrain, are very professional and know the job," Zizic told Reuters.
Both Robertson and Zizic were at U.N. headquarters for meetings with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the 15-nation Security Council.
The council was scheduled to discuss the clashes in Macedonia on Wednesday following a closed-door briefing by Macedonian Foreign Minister Srgam Kerim.
Robertson said NATO was determined "that the ground safety zone will not be used as a safe haven for extremists to launch attacks and to use violence against others."
NATO was also sending more peacekeepers to the Kosovo side of the border and stepping up patrols to prevent the guerrillas from using Kosovo for raids into Macedonia, he added.
The peacekeepers entered Kosovo in June 1999, following an 11-week NATO air campaign to force then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to stop repressing the ethnic Albanians, who are a majority in Kosovo.
But Robertson criticized a Macedonian proposal that NATO peacekeepers set up a new buffer zone on the Kosovo side of the border. "I don't think another ground safety zone, frankly, is the answer here," he said in response to a question.
No one is certain why the rebellion broke out but extremists appear to want to unite parts of Serbia and Macedonia where ethnic Albanians live.
Robertson said the area's mountainous terrain made it difficult to estimate how many guerrillas were involved in the attacks though the Macedonian authorities estimated that some 200 to 800 were involved.
Regardless of the size of the force, "any tension in this part of the world has got to be looked on gravely," Robertson said.