Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Alarm Bells in South Serbia

Albanian guerrillas feared back in action in Presevo as talks over neighbouring Kosovo approach.
By Skender Latifi

An outbreak of violence in southern Serbia is threatening the already fragile peace there, and creating acrimony between local Albanian politicians and Belgrade.


A hand grenade exploded overnight on August 27-28 close to the main mosque in Presevo's town centre. It was the fourth in a series of incidents that have shaken the predominantly Albanian region of southern Serbia.


The outlawed Albanian National Army, ANA, admitted it had carried out two earlier attacks, confirming Serbian fears. But Albanian politicians blamed later incidents, including the grenade explosion, on covert operations ordered by Serbia's government.


Although accounts differed over who was behind the attacks, they agreed that this was the worst violence seen since the end of a six-month conflict in 2001, in which Albanian insurgents battled Serbian security forces.


Some 70,000 ethnic Albanians form the majority in Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, the three southernmost districts of Serbia. There has been relative stability since May 2001, when a peace agreement was signed under pressure from the international community, and the Albanian guerrilla force, the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, UCPMB, agreed to disband.


Some progress has been made in implementing a peace plan - multi-ethnic police units have been formed and fresh local elections held, putting Albanians in control of all three municipalities.


The latest violence has greatly increased tension and harmed the relationship between Belgrade and the Albanian community. Local observers are concerned that the situation may deteriorate further.


The first two attacks were on Serbian security facilities - mortars were fired at a military base near the village of Dobrosin on August 10, and gunmen fired shots at a police checkpoint near Konculj on August 17. No casualties were were reported.


The ANA - which also operates in neighbouring Macedonia and Kosovo - claimed responsibility, issuing a statement saying, "The fight for the liberation of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja will not cease as long as these territories are occupied by Serbian troops."


Alban Vjosa, political secretary of the ANA's political wing, the Albanian National Union Front, did not comment directly on the attacks, but suggested to IWPR that the guerrilla force meant business. "The Albanian National Army will be present constantly in this region in order to defend the Albanian population from a possible massacre by Serbian troops," he said.


"We know that the price of freedom is high, but we are capable of paying a high price for it."


Subsequent attacks targeted civilian rather than military or police units. As well as the grenade at the mosque, recent days have seen an explosion outside Presevo's cultural centre which left two people injured. Serbian and Presevo Albanian politicians traded accusations about who was behind the incidents.


Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic - who designed the 2001 peace plan - told Radio B92 on August 28 that Albanian extremists were deliberately targeting their own community, and that he feared they would resort to indiscriminate attacks.


"The terrorists are preparing something very, very dangerous, something bloodthirsty," he warned.


Albanian party leaders in the south blamed the Belgrade government, and suggested the attacks were a spoiling tactic ahead of the first official talks between Serbia and Kosovo. Even though the negotiations scheduled for September will deal only with low-level practical issues, they are expected to lead eventually to discussions about the status that should be granted to Kosovo. Many Albanians in southern Serbia view their region as "Eastern Kosovo" and do not want to be left out of a final deal.


Mustafa Ragimi, leader of south Serbia's second-largest party, the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, accused "Serbian secret services, and Serbian politicians who oppose democracy" of being behind the latest explosions.


Orhan Rexhepi, the local leader of the Movement for Democratic Progress - a party formed by former UCPMB members - told IWPR that he thought the Serbian government had arranged the blasts to provoke the ANA, to justify the deployment of more security forces in the region, and to divert the international community's attention ahead of the Kosovo talks.


There were more moderate voices, too. Presevo mayor Riza Halimi, who heads the leading Party of Democratic Action, described the cultural centre as "terrorist act" without blaming anyone.


Local analysts report a growing sense of resentment among local people that things have not really improved even though Albanian politicians are in charge of local government. Only about 2,300 of Presevo's 48,000 inhabitants have jobs. Moderates such as Halimi, who are willing to deal with Belgrade, are losing support, local observers say.


The guerrillas may now be trying to capitalise on this - when Vjosa spoke to IWPR, he suggested that the ANA was acting because the Albanian community was unhappy with existing political parties.


The ANA appeared as a force only recently, and is believed to have recruited some former members of the UCPMB, the National Liberation Army in Macedonia and the Kosovo Liberation Army - particularly those disgruntled with the peace deals reached in Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo.


IWPR has learned that it has deployed forces in southern Serbia, as well as across the border in the Kumanovo area of Macedonia. On August 31, thousands of people were said to have fled their homes in Kumanovo after fears of clashes between Macedonian security forces and the ANA.


A young Albanian living in Presevo, who was formerly a UCPMB member, told IWPR that he felt betrayed by local politicians and deceived by Belgrade. He said he was prepared to join the ANA, "because their aim is not to fight for the 'semi-freedom' that we fought for".


Another Bujanovac man, who asked to remain anonymous, said, "I never participated in clashes in the last local conflict, but now I would join the Albanian National Army. We are still occupied, and the proof of this is the Serbian troops that are constantly directed towards us."


Serbs living in the three municipalities that make up the Presevo valley are increasingly worried. Nenad Manic, who heads the Democratic Party's office in Presevo, told IWPR, "Such incidents trigger the local Serbs' feeling of insecurity, because they are definitely a minority here. This will result in them fleeing the Presevo municipality."


Skender Latifi is an IWPR contributor in Presevo.