Reinforcements in the Sandzak

Additional troops deployed in the Muslim-dominated region of Serbia have raised fears that Milosevic may stir up fresh conflict in his own backyard.

Reinforcements in the Sandzak

Additional troops deployed in the Muslim-dominated region of Serbia have raised fears that Milosevic may stir up fresh conflict in his own backyard.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

The Yugoslav Army has deployed an additional armoured brigade in the Muslim-majority region of Sandzak, fuelling fears that Belgrade may be preparing to open up another conflict.

A newly formed 7th brigade has joined the 168th and the 37th in the Sandzak, a region straddling Serbia and Montenegro. Visible and in direct contact with the Muslim population, the brigades raise tensions and increase the anxiety felt by the local population towards the Serbian establishment.

Estimates suggest that there are as many as 15,000 Yugoslav soldiers in the area, along with a large number of police and secret police. In addition, many Serbian civilians are also armed. Thus, of a total population in the Sandzak of 150,000, well more than 10 per cent are armed representatives of the Belgrade regime.

Sandzak has long been considered a potential crisis point in the Balkans. Its population is Slav, but predominantly Muslim, and it borders several neighbours with whom Serbia has had tense if not very violent relations: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo.

Although the population has not pursued autonomy or independence, relations with Serb authorities have been necessarily edgy, punctuated by incidents of direct repression--particularly during the Kosovo crisis this year.

"The hostile relationship of the Yugoslav army towards the Bosniaks of Sandzak was evident during the NATO strikes," says Sulejman Ugljanin, the leading Muslim politician in Sandzak--using the national term adopted by Muslims in Bosnia. "The hatred with which the army destroyed all Bosniak symbols is particularly worrying."

Ugljanin claims that the Yugoslav Army expelled Muslims and Albanians in the villages of Kaludjerski Laz, Bukelj and Dacici during the NATO campaign. In total, about 25,000 Muslims fled the Sandzak during the crisis. Most of these have returned, but have lost their jobs due to avoiding work duty under war conditions.

Many Muslims who stayed collected large amounts of money, as well as food and cigarettes, as "gifts" for the army in hopes of not being disturbed. But in April, Grujica Davidovic, commander of the army's Uzice Corps broke into the municipal seats of Sjenica and Tutin with armed soldiers and personally beat the presidents of these municipalities, Dzamail Suljevic and Semsudin Kucevic.

Belgrade now uses the proximity of restless borders to justify its increase in troops in the Sandzak. But Muslim politicians see the deployment as clear intimidation. One explanation, they say, is that the government aims militarily to prevent any attempts by radical Muslim elements to turn the Sandzak into a new rebel stronghold, which might lead to a fresh intervention by the West.

But politicians here say there is no chance of a serious radicalisation of the Muslim population in Sandzak.

"Albanians in Kosovo, who number two million, can allow themselves to lose 100,000 people," says Rasim Ljajic, president of the Sandzak Coalition, the second political party in the region. "For us, who are numerically inferior, no autonomy or even independence represents a gain, if several dozen thousand people should get killed."

More likely, others say, the deployment is yet another example of Milosevic's survival tactics--opening up a new crisis point to rally Serbian nationalists and divert attention from the loss of Kosovo and the on-going anti-regime protests. As in Bonsia and Kosovo before, the president may be appealing for the defence of one more holy Serbian land against "Islamic fundamentalism." In any event, it is likely to be a self-defeating strategy.

"We all know that Sandzak is the next crisis spot." Zoran Djindjic, president of the Democratic Party and leading figure of the Alliance for Changes opposition coalition, told IWPR recently. "But wherever he enters with tanks, Serbs leave on tractors as refugees."

Miroslav Filipovic is an independent journalist from Kraljevo in Serbia.

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