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Serbia: Albanian Death Fuels Presevo Secession Calls

Fatal shooting leads to further demands from south Serbia Albanians for union with Kosovo.
By Skender Latifi

Concerns are growing that the killing of a 15-year-old ethnic Albanian teenager in southern Serbia could create an even bigger rift between Belgrade and the local ethnic Albanian authorities.


Presevo High School student Dasnim Hajrullahu was killed on January 7 near the village of Miratovac, close to Serbia’s border with Macedonia. He had tried to cross the frontier illegally after spending the New Year’s holidays with his mother in Macedonia.


An investigation confirmed that a Serbia and Montenegro army border guard had fired at Hajrullahu from a watchtower some 200 metres away. Serbian defence minister Prvoslav Davinic said “the border guards acted in line with the rules of engagement”.


The incident has rekindled demands from the Albanian-dominated Presevo valley of south Serbia for union with Kosovo. The region - comprising the municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja - was the scene of clashes between local militants and Serbian forces in 2001, which ended in a truce with Belgrade pledging to grant local authorities more powers and improve the economy.


Presevo’s new mayor Regmi Mustafa, leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, warned that Albanians would seriously consider walking out of the local government and forming their own parallel institutions if the Serbian authorities fail to deal with the border fatality to their satisfaction.


If not, Mustafa told the media, “Serbia would no longer exist as a state as far as we are concerned.”


The day after the tragedy, Mustafa refused to meet either Nebojsa Covic, the head of the Serbian government’s coordinating body for southern Serbia, or Rasim Ljajic, the minister for minorities and ethnic communities.


Party of Democratic Progress, PDP, leader Orhan Rexhepi - a former commander of the guerrilla Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja Liberation Army, which battled Serbian forces four years ago - told IWPR that Covic and the former local Albanian leadership “had failed to resolve the problem” in the Presevo valley.


He added that Hajrullahu’s death showed that Albanians in southern Serbia had “no choice” but to demand integration with Kosovo.


The local Albanian authorities are now demanding that Belgrade allow the deployment of international troops in southern Serbia, withdraw the army and police, and set up new border crossings with Kosovo and Macedonia.


In turn, Serbia has proposed the restructuring of a body tasked with addressing problems in south Serbia, and has also offered to set up a multi-ethnic committee to investigate Hajrullahu’s death.


Mustafa dismissed Belgrade’s overtures as “ludicrous”, as he said promises to restructure the committee over the past two years have come to naught. Rexhepi said that Albanians in southern Serbia would be “acting against their own interests if they joined” the body. Albanian leaders are due to meet again on January 21 to discuss Belgrade’s offer.


The ruling coalition in the area - comprising the DPA, the Democratic Union of the Valley, DUD, and the PDP - advocate a far more radical political solution to the issue of south Serbia than their predecessors.


The coalition proposes that if there are any internal changes in Kosovo to allow predominately Serb areas in the north of the entity to become part of Serbia, then Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja should be permitted to join Kosovo.


They want this issue to be debated at the same time as talks to determine the final status of the UN protectorate, which are expected to be held this year.


Nenad Manic, a moderate Serb leader in the region and a local Democratic Party, DS, chief, told IWPR that resolving Kosovo’s final status is inextricably linked with southern Serbia.


“It is common knowledge that ethnic Albanians are the majority here, hence this tragic event [possible Kosovo independence] will radicalise the situation to a certain extent and prompt political demands for integration with Kosovo,” he said.


One Presevo analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Albanian leadership in southern Serbia would not enter into dialogue with Belgrade as easily as the previous authorities had. “The newly-elected leadership will not cooperate with Belgrade unconditionally,” he told IWPR.


Former Presevo mayor Riza Hallimi said that dialogue between Belgrade and the region’s authorities had ground to a halt after the hard-line Vojislav Kostunica was appointed prime minister of Serbia.


Rexhepi said in his view there was “no visible difference” between Kostunica’s position on southern Serbia and that of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, currently on trial for war crimes in The Hague.


Skender Destani, the leader of the DUD, says that the Serbian authorities have shown in the past year or so that “destabilising the region is the only thing they can do”.


Meanwhile, the international community has reacted positively to the Serbian government’s response to the latest crisis.


On January 12, the NATO council of ambassadors noted that the tension had decreased after the Serbian authorities initiated a prompt dialogue with Albanians, and described the opening of an immediate investigation into the death of the teenager as “very positive”.


Skender Latifi is an IWPR correspondent in Presevo


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