Serbia + 1 more

Serbia: Ethnic ghosts

Seizure of arms caches and the death of an ethnic Albanian policeman spark fears that ethnic tensions could lead to renewed violence in southern Serbia.

BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro--Specters of the 2001 ethnic clashes in southern Serbia arose again last week after Serbian police raided two villages near the border with Macedonia and arrested a dozen ethnic Albanians for illegal possession of arms and military equipment.

The early-morning search came as a result of several incidents in the region, culminating in the murder of an ethnic Albanian member of the multi-ethnic Serbian police force.

The arrests have triggered peaceful protests by ethnic Albanians and given rise to murky rumors concerning the reactivation of the armed units of the disbanded Liberation Army of Bujanovac, Presevo, and Medvedja (UCPBM) and another unnamed "liberation army" alluded to in local media reports.

In the early hours of 8 February, units of the Zandarmerija, the Serbian paramilitary police, and the Security Information Agency (BIA), Serbia's secret police, raided the villages of Konculj and Veliki Trnovac in the Bujanovac municipality, arresting 12 ethnic Albanians and seizing rifles and military equipment, including a variety of uniforms.

Jonuz Musliu, the political leader of the disbanded UCPBM and brother of the military leader of the same group, Shefqet Musliu, was among those arrested. He was released the same day along with four other ethnic Albanians, while the remaining seven were kept in custody on suspicion of possessing firearms and "organizing terrorist activities."

The arrest set off peaceful protests in the majority ethnic Albanian community of Bujanovac, where the protestors demanded the immediate release of all arrested. They also protested the removal of the national flag of Albania from the tomb of Ridvan Cazimi Leshi, a member of the disbanded UCMPB who was killed in May 2001. The monument is situated in Veliki Trnovac.

Protests continued throughout the past week in both Bujanovac and Presevo, where ethnic Albanian political representatives claimed that the multi-ethnic police should have conducted the village raids, rather than the Serbian special forces.

In response to Albanian accusations that special forces were amassing in the ethnically tense region, Nebojsa Covic, chief of the Serbian Coordination Body of the Serbian government for southern Serbia, said that nothing extraordinary is happening and pointed out that Serbia is prepared to fight against any kind of terrorism.

In numerous statements to the Serbian media, Covic reminded the public of the murder of BIA member Selver Fazliu and of several other attacks on multi-ethnic police members. Covic said that Shefqet Musliu, who lives in the Kosovo town of Gnjilane, was responsible for organizing the 30 January beating of several members of the multi-ethnic police in Bujanovac.

The former leader of the armed Albanian forces in southern Serbia did not miss the opportunity to comment on the events over the administrative border dividing Serbia and Kosovo. According to Kosovo media, Musliu accused Covic of "keeping military forces in the region" and instigating new clashes. Covic responded by advising Musliu to "concentrate on the explanations" he should be giving for harassing the multi-ethnic police and engaging in racketeering.

But it took more than just mere statements in the media to reawaken fears of a renewal of the violent clashes that shook the area in 2001. On the morning of 11 February, the Bujanovac municipality building sported graffiti of the ethnic Albanian armed forces, UCMPB and AKSh, the latter being the Macedonia-based Albanian National Army, whose members have not been sighted in Kosovo or southern Serbia so far, but whose fame is widespread.

Shortly afterwards, the Kosovo media published warnings, allegedly from an AKSh official, that the group's current guerilla activities will soon turn into open warfare.

Worrying words were also published on the other side of the administrative border. Based on information from the Serbian Coordination Body and, allegedly, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), Serbian state television warned that attacks on southern Serbia were imminent.

Serbian media have also published unconfirmed stories that 450 residents of the region have been sent to Kosovo for training in explosives. Then, on 15 February, Covic told the public that police had obtained information on the existence of a small terrorist group aiming to kidnap people in the region.

UNMIK has officially denied any knowledge of movements of armed groups of ethnic Albanians over the border between Kosovo and Serbia proper.

What these latest events in the region have most clearly illustrated is that the peace process is dangerously fragile. Shefqet Musliu attempted to turn the world's attention to the troubled region last week, but both Serbs and Albanians hold responsibility for the tense situation.

The region's ethnic Albanians, who comprise a majority in the Bujanovac and Presevo municipalities, have increasingly shown a willingness to participate in local government structures. The remnants of the militant forces, however, disagree

The international community, in the meantime, has remained quiet about the recent events, possibly indicating a "wait and see" tactic, as all sides struggle to gain a diplomatic position that can be maintained should events take a more radical turn.

by Dragan Stojkovic


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