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

Serbia: Presevo Peace Boost

The arrest of a former military leader in the Presevo valley appears to have averted a crisis in the fragile regional peace process.
By Jim Adams

Attempts by Albanian militants to stir up trouble in southern Serbia are thought to have been thwarted by the arrest earlier this month of one of their alleged ringleaders.


Sefcet Musliu, onetime leader of the ethnic-Albanian Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, UCPBM, was apprehended by American KFOR troops at the beginning of May. He is suspected of responsibility for a series of violent attacks in majority-Albanian Presevo valley region over the past few weeks.


These include a landmine blast injuring two members of the Yugoslav army and a number of grenade assaults on both Serb homes and a multi-ethnic police station.


Sources close to the international administration in Kosovo told IWPR that Musliu had been arrested because Yugoslav and Western officials were worried about the escalation in violence, which had broken out just as there seemed to be growing support for the integration of Serbs and ethnic-Albanians in the Presevo valley - a process begun after a ceasefire signed in May 2001 between UCPBM and Belgrade.


Muted ethnic Albanian reaction to the arrest seems to reflect the fact that most in the community regard Musliu as an isolated radical still fighting for the annexation of the their region to Kosovo - something ruled out by local Albanian politicians who believe that they will win the majority of seats in regional elections and achieve their goals of greater integration into Serbian political life.


For the first time since 1981, local political leaders in the three municipalities of Presevo, Bujunovac and Medvedja have agreed to hold a census in the area, paving the way for local elections expected in June this year.


Differences between the former and the renegade UCPBM leadership began to emerge almost immediately after the peace treaty was approved. Although Musliu signed the agreement, it was clear he was unhappy with its conditions.


Subsequently, he became hostile towards the Party for Democratic Action led by Riza Halimi, the main political figure in the region. Musliu openly accused Halimi of "having betrayed Albanian interests" in the region, allegedly trashing his offices in Bujanovac and physically assaulting his colleagues.


His extremist views prompted the Bush administration to put him on a black list of suspected terrorists last year.


Halimi declined to comment on the arrest of the former UCPMB commander, although he pointed out that Musliu had actively contributed to the peace process and had encouraged younger Albanians to support it.


Jonuz Musliu, former head of the Political Council for Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja - the political wing of UCPBM - said that the arrest of his namesake had "jeopardized peace in the region". This is reference to widespread concern that ex-rebel leader's followers may retaliate.


Musliu shot to prominence when he joined the Liberation Army of Kosovo, UCK, back in 1998. The former car mechanic teamed up with the guerrilla group as it began to clash with Serbian police. A determined fighter, he became very close to Ramush Haradinaj, the former commander of UCK who now heads the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo Party.


When the war in Kosovo ended in 1999, Musliu formed the UCPBM, launching operations against the Yugoslav army, which had been forced to withdraw from Kosovo. The UCPBM fighters established themselves in the five-kilometre demilitarised zone set up by KFOR along the administrative border between southern Serbia and Kosovo.


The UCPMB's aim was to free Presevo Albanians from the tyranny of Serb control by annexing the area to what they hoped would be an eventually independent Kosovo.


Local politicians gave their support to the group, but were far more interested in fighting for ethnic Albanian rights than actual annexation.


Even though there is a chance that KFOR's arrest may achieve exactly the opposite of what it is trying to do, it is a symbol of the international community's determination to deal decisively with all potential threats to the hard won peace here.


Jim Adams is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist based in Serbia