Presevo Peace Plan Rejected

Albanian guerrillas operating in southern Serbia reject Belgrade peace proposals amid renewed fighting.

Presevo Peace Plan Rejected

Albanian guerrillas operating in southern Serbia reject Belgrade peace proposals amid renewed fighting.

Ethnic Albanian guerrillas have dismissed as "unacceptable" Belgrade's proposals to calm tensions in the disputed Presevo region of southern Serbia.

The rebels' response comes only days after an upsurge in violence in the area. On February 5, ethnic Albanian guerrillas exchanged artillery fire with Serbian police and Yugoslav army forces across the internationally imposed buffer zone, which runs along Serbia's administrative border with Kosovo.

The clashes were the heaviest since November 2000 when four Serbian police officers were killed during a guerrilla attack.

The Belgrade plan, presented earlier this week, follows the creation two months ago of a government coordinating body for Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, with the aim of finding a peaceful solution to the crisis.

The plan, which received the immediate backing of the United States, offered Albanians in the Presevo valley a larger role in local political life but stopped short of the autonomy sought by the self-styled Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, UCPMB - named after the three main towns in the Albanian-dominated area.

Zeqirja Fazliu, president of the Unified Albanian Democratic Party, the political wing of the UCPMB, said the plan did not provide a basis for talks with Belgrade because they would settle for nothing less than becoming a part of Kosovo.

The plan envisaged a three-stage approach to resolving tensions in the area.

First, ethnic Albanians would be integrated into the social fabric and observance of human rights in accordance with European standards would be guaranteed.

Next, the buffer zone, starting with the villages of Lucani and Veliki Trnavac, would be gradually demilitarised. Joint Serbian and Albanian police forces would patrol the area.

And lastly, the economic, social and political infrastructure would be revitalised. Washington has already earmarked $5 million for reconstruction work in southern Serbia.

"The international community should convince the Albanians to abandon any idea of autonomy in southern Serbia, or a special status for the region and any change of borders," the plan said.

Nebojsa Covic, a former mayor of Belgrade and deputy president in the Serbian government, who took the lead in devising the peace plan, said his initiative would respect the human rights of the Albanian population while preserving the basic interests of the Serbs in the region, including Kosovo.

It is the first time that creative and inclusive thinking has taken precedence over the barrel of the gun when it comes to Belgrade policy-making towards the Albanian minority.

It's insistence on seeking a political solution to the crisis in southern Serbia has earned the new government several brownie points with the international community and regional peacekeeping forces.

US and EU officials praised the plan. US Balkans envoy James Pardew said the proposals offered an important step towards "the creation of conditions for the Albanian minority to enjoy all civil rights".

Riza Halimi, the mayor of Presevo and political representative of ethnic Albanians in the area, welcomed the call for talks, especially after the Serbian authorities agreed to meet representatives of UCPMB, an organisation Belgrade has labelled as "terrorist".

With their rejection of the plan, however, the UCPMB and its political allies have made clear their intention to push for a recognition of the results of an unofficial Albanian referendum in 1992, which backed an independent Kosovo, including Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, in the event of Yugoslavia's disintegration.

But with Montenegro and Kosovo already likely to slip from Belgrade's grasp, the new Serbian government cannot afford to make any further territorial concessions.

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic said "those not ready to be reasonable will suffer the consequences."

The tension in the Presevo valley, home to around 70,000 ethnic Albanians, intensified after former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic redeployed Yugoslav forces from Kosovo to the region following the signing of the Kumanovo Agreement in June 1999.

Local Albanians were radicalised by the heavy-handedness of some members of the Serbian security forces, especially those from Kosovo who began a campaign of terror against the civilian population.

People in the area welcomed the formation of the UCPMB as a form of safety net against repression. It is thought the organisation came into being at the funeral of two young Albanian men killed in a village in Presevo.

The UCPMB attracted members from the discontented local population and from among former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters.

Keen not to repeat the mistakes of the Milosevic government, the new administration in Belgrade has favoured diplomatic, rather than military means to resolve the crisis.

After a tour of the Yugoslav army and police positions, which came under fire on Monday, Rasim Ljajic, federal minister for religious and national minorities, said the government would not be discouraged by the continued violence, but would "persevere in [seeking] a political solution to the crisis".

European Union security chief Javier Solana yesterday called on the guerrillas to lay down their weapons. "We hope that we will find a political solution," he said. " No other solution is possible. The time for violence is over."

Shawn Sullivan, political adviser to the commander of the international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, called upon Serbs and Albanians to show restraint. He expressed concern over the level of militarisation on both sides, especially, as in some places, the forces were only a few hundred metres apart.

In a recent report presented to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, Carl Bildt, UN special envoy to the Balkans warned "there was no region in the whole of Europe more likely to endanger peace on the continent than the Presevo valley".

He said the conflict could spark a new wave of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and even spread to neighbouring Macedonia.

A convoy of diplomats, including US Ambassador to Yugoslavia William Montgomery and James Perdew, came under fire near the Albanian-held village of Lucani while on a tour of police checkpoints in the Bujanovac area on February 6.

The incident brought home to Washington, perhaps intentionally, just how inflammable the Presevo crisis is. US troops make up the Kosovo Force, K-For, contingent stationed just over the border in the UN-administered province. Washington originally chose this area of Kosovo to patrol because it was thought to be the least troublesome.

US policy is led by a strong desire to avoid being sucked into a military conflagration. Avoiding US casualties in the short term and extricating itself from the Balkans altogether in the longer term, are clear aims of the new Bush administration.

Dragana Nikolic is a regular IWPR contributor.

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