West Stepping up Campaign against Kosovar Muslims in South Serbia

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In a new twist in the west’s escalating campaign against the independence-seeking ethnic Albanians in southeastern Serbia, the NATO-led ‘peacekeeping force’ in Kosova (KFOR) on January 8 launched a propaganda campaign to discourage the rebels from continuing their armed struggle. KFOR published a half-page colour advertisement in the local Kosovar paper Rilindja, appealing directly to the fighters of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, commonly known by its Albanian acronym UCPMB, to lay down their arms. “Members of the UCPMB,” the ad read, “Your sacrifice is not needed any more. Solutions will come through dialogue, not violence. Lay down your arms. Go back to your homes with dignity. Your families need you.”

But the UCPMB is not dispirited by KFOR’s propaganda. A “political committee” of the guerrilla group countered with its own coloured advertisement. The counter-ad, which ran on the same page as the KFOR ad, underlined the fact that the UCPMB is a force dedicated to protecting the Albanians of the Presevo Valley region from Serbian police harassment and intimidation. During the last year, the region has seen clashes in which an estimated 20 ethnic Albanians and several Serbian police officers have been killed. As a result of growing fears of a repeat of a Kosova-style Serbian campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’, tens of thousands of Albanians have fled the region and sought refuge in Kosova.

The Presevo Valley, where an estimated 80,000 Albanians live, overlaps with a strategically sensitive 5-kilometre-wide demilitarized Ground Safety Zone (GSZ) in north-western Serbia. It is sandwiched between Macedonia to the south and Kosova to the northwest. The GSZ was established as part of the deal that ended NATO’s campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999 and regulated the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosova. The agreement permits only lightly armed Serbian police forces, not army troops, to operate in the GSZ. The UCPMB was founded in response to increased repression of the Albanian majority in the region at the hands of the Serbian police. It has so far managed to wrest control of an estimated dozen villages from Serbian police control, setting up its headquarters in the village of Dobrosin.

KFOR’s propaganda campaign follows the escalation of its crackdown against the ‘rebels’, which gathered momentum in late December and early January. On January 6, British soldiers patrolling Kosova’s border with the GSZ arrested nine suspected members of the UCPMB. Major Tim Pierce, a British army spokesman, said that the armed men, who were entering KFOR-administered Kosova at the time, were detained after Royal Marines at an observation-post near the village of Zegra challenged them. “The men threw down their weapons and attempted to escape. There was a hot pursuit and the patrol apprehended nine suspects,” the spokesman said, adding that one man managed to escape.

The British soldiers who made the arrests are part of British and Scandinavian contingents comprising some 250 troops that were deployed in the area a few days earlier in an effort to prevent fighters and supplies from getting to the UCPMB through the porous Kosovar-Serbian border.

On January 1, KFOR arrested a UCPMB commander. Muhammad Xhemali, the commander of the most northerly guerrilla contingent in the region, was arrested at a KFOR checkpoint near the village of Car. Among other things, Xhemali’s arrest amounted to an attempt to influence the course of an internal policy debate within the UCPMB by muzzling and purging opposition to a KFOR-mediated agreement within its ranks. Xhemali belongs to the radical wing of the UCPMB and had earlier voiced his opposition to KFOR-mediated peace talks with the Serbian government. He had also warned that his men would fire on KFOR troops if they attempt to enter the GSZ and disarm the paramilitaries without prior agreement.

The arrest of the UCPMB commander came a few hours after the UCPMB made a positive gesture to defuse tensions in the region by handing six Serbs, who had been detained on a road linking Kosova with Serbia the previous day, over to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Shaqir Shaqiri, a spokesman for the UCPMB “political committee” said that the Serbs “were stopped just to identify whether they were people who committed crimes in Kosova.” The UCPMB had initially proposed to exchange the six Serbs for 20 ethnic Albanians still being held in Serbian jails since the Kosova war came to an end in June 1999. According to human rights groups in Belgrade, up to 800 ethnic Albanians are in Serbian prisons, in appalling conditions, to this day. Shaqiri said that there were no strings attached to the Serbs’ release, “but there was a demand for KFOR to release Rexhep Aliu,” another UCPMB commander who had earlier been detained by KFOR. Aliu is reportedly being held in a US base in Kosova after being caught in possession of weapons.

Xhemali’s worries with respect to KFOR’s intentions towards the UCPMB are well founded. Relations between KFOR and Belgrade have entered a new phase since the new Yugoslav leadership under president Vojislav Kostunica replaced Slobodan Milosevic in October. Kostunica has called for the buffer zone to be made narrower, and his government submitted a draft resolution to parliament on December 25 saying that Belgrade would take its own measures unless KFOR moves against the UCPMB. The draft was endorsed by Yugoslavia’s Supreme Defence Council. On December 26, deputies in the 40-member Yugoslav upper chamber unanimously adopted the government’s resolution calling for international intervention against the UCPMB in the Presevo Valley. The following day, deputies in the 138-member lower house also adopted the resolution.

In late December, NATO pressured the UCPMB to agree to a verbal accord with the Serbian authorities to remove blockades on a key road in the region. A four-point document issued on December 30 gives details of the accord. It says that the agreement calls for the UCPMB to remove a blockade at the entrance of the village of Veliki Trnovac. This is to be followed immediately by the removal of a checkpoint erected by the Serbian police some 1,300 feet away. The document stipulates guarantees for complete freedom of movement on a road linking Bujanovac with Gnjilane in Kosova. It also states that only Serbian traffic police would be stationed in the area. The pact was signed by Shawn Sullivan, a NATO political advisor in Kosova, who mediated the agreement between the two sides. It was also signed by another NATO emissary, Colonel Serge Labbe. However, the Serbs refused to sign the document on the basis that this would amount to a de facto recognition of the UCPMB, which has not signed either. But the two NATO officials said that their signatures were a guarantee for both sides that the accord will be implemented. However, Sullivan showed no squeamishness in expressing NATO’s anti-UCPMB bias. “We have started a process of demilitarization of the armed groups of ethnic Albanians,” he told reporters after signing the document. He refused, however, to give any pledge to protect the Albanian civilian population in the Presevo Valley from the intimidation and brutalities of the Serbian police.

The accord follows after increasingly vociferous accusations from Belgrade that KFOR was not doing enough to prevent Kosova from being used as a supply base for the UCPMB. A number of Serbian officials have also threatened to remove the guerrillas by force if KFOR does not move against them. There are indications that the accord and the crackdown are part of a NATO effort to squeeze the UCPMB out of the GSZ. Following the announcement of the accord, Serbia’s prime-minister designate, Zoran Djindjic, hailed the agreement, saying that it ushers in the beginning of an end to the crisis. Djindjic spelled out his notion of an end to the crisis in an interview to a local Serb television station. He said that a US congressional delegation on an official visit to Yugoslavia had “assured me that the Albanian terrorists would withdraw from the zone in ten days.” In an interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel (December 30, 2000), Djindjic issued an ultimatum to KFOR to put an end to UCPMB activities in 20 days, otherwise “our police will intervene immediately.”

The west has also signaled its willingness to agree to Belgrade’s demand to narrow the GSZ. On December 26, the French foreign ministry announced that changes to the accord ending the war in Kosova were being discussed to try to put an end to UCPMB activities. On the same day a spokesman at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, said that changes to the 1999 accord were a possibility, given the recent changes in Serbia. NATO’s increasing collusion with Belgrade does not augur well for the Albanians of the Presevo Valley. Recent developments suggest that it has adopted a slow strategy to support Yugoslavia’s attempt to remove ground form under the UCPMB’s feet.

* Helena Bestakova is in Prague, Czech Republic

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