By IWPR reporters in London and Presevo (BCR No 406, 13-Feb-03)
New fears of armed conflict are looming in south Serbia after guerrillas threatened violence to avenge the arrest of 12 fellow Albanians found in possession of arms and military equipment.
While five of the men were released without charge on February 10, seven are still being questioned on suspicion of planning extremist acts.
The Albanian National Army, ANA, a shadowy pan-Albanian militant group, announced on the same day that it was mobilising forces in the Presevo valley area, which until mid-2001 was a battleground on which guerrillas from the local Albanian majority fought Serbian forces.
This new unrest jeopardised a painfully brokered peace process under which greater democratic rights had been accorded to the Albanian community. In exchange for this guerrillas calling themselves the Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, UCPBM, had agreed to lay down arms.
The latest flare-up started on February 4 when unknown assailants in Bujanovac, south Serbia, killed Selver Fazlia, an ethnic Albanian inspector of the Serbian Security Information Agency, BIA. In the same town the next day, a bomb was hurled at the house of another member of the multi-ethnic police force.
In response to those attacks, Serbian police and BIA arrested the 12 suspects on February 8 in the towns of Veliki Trnovac and Konculj, former strongholds of the UCPBM. In addition to seizing a large quantity of weapons, police removed the Albanian national flag from the grave of a former UCPBM commander, Ridvan Cazimi, aka Commander Lesi.
Within hours of the arrests, about 1,000 local Albanians protested in the streets of Bujanovac, blocking the only main road connecting the area with Kosovo. They demanded the release of the 12 men and complained about the involvement of Serbian police.
The next day, a former UCPBM commander, Sefcet Musliu, said in Kosovo, that war would break out in south Serbia unless all the arrested men were freed. The ANA, which up to now had mostly acted in Macedonia, echoed these threats.
The ANA advocates unification of all ethnic Albanian lands and opposes any other form of peace agreement.
ANA leader Vigan Gradica told the Pristina daily Koha Ditore this week that his units were active in Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Greece.
EU foreign affairs chief Javier Solana today spoke out against the continuing unrest in South Serbia. He described it as an attempt to undermine the rule of law and destabilise the region, according to the news agency Beta. Solana also warned that attacks on ethnically mixed police by extremist groups and their intimidation of local authorities would not be tolerated.
Commentators in south Serbia suggested several motives for the renewed unrest.
One was the use of Serbian police instead of the local multi-ethnic police, which was brought into being by the peace accord. Protesters were particularly agitated that the police unit was led by Goran Radoslavljevic, an officer with a reputation for brutal repression of Albanians in Kosovo.
A second was Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic's attempt to speed up the process of agreement on a final status for Kosovo. Ethnic Albanians who dominate south Serbia want to see their area joined up with Kosovo in exchange for Serb enclaves in Kosovo's north.
A third was resentment among militant Albanian leaders in south Serbia at their own loss of influence since peace arrived.
Analysts think the Belgrade authorities will try to keep the peace in the region at any cost. Belgrade had been highly pleased at the pattern of events in which the UCPBM was disarmed, the multi-ethnic police created and the ethnic Albanians participated in the political process to the point where they won municipal seats in Bujanovac and Presevo.
Serbian deputy premier Nebojsa Covic, the main author of the Presevo peace accord, said Serbia's forces are ready for all challenges but he appealed to the international community to prevent infiltration of extremists from Kosovo.
Covic told Radio B92 this week, "Our security forces are ready. However, we are not for war, we are for a peaceful solution of all problems. Pressure, blackmail and threats are out of question." At the same time, he urged international forces in Kosovo to arrest Sefcet Musliu, accusing him of harassing moderate Albanians in south Serbia.
The deputy premier went on to say that most of the trouble in the region was being stirred up by a small group of men who tried to foment dissatisfaction among young men over economic hardship and unemployment.
"The group is no larger than ten, but it could grow unless stopped in time," he warned.
A day after Covic's statement, ANA and UCPBM graffiti was scrawled on the Bujanovac town hall, which houses the Serbian Press Centre and the offices of the Yugoslav Coordination team for south Serbia.
Analysts in Belgrade and south Serbia think further developments will largely depend on the international community, which has great influence on local ethnic Albanians as well as on the Belgrade authorities.