News 20 Jan 13

Serbia Removes Albanian Guerrilla Monument

Police took down a controversial monument dedicated to ethnic Albanian fighters in south Serbia in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Marija Ristic
BIRN
Belgrade
   Photo by Beta

Around 200 Serbian police moved in to the town of Presevo on Sunday morning to take down the memorial after Belgrade repeatedly warned that it promoted ethnic separatism and had to be demolished.

Local ethnic Albanians had vowed to defend the monument to fighters who died in a conflict with Serbian forces in 2000, but police clad in riot gear were met with no resistance when they entered the town.

Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said that after legal deadlines for the local municipality to remove the monument expired, police had to take action.

“Serbia has shown enough patience but it had to show that laws need to be respected,” Dacic said.

According to media reports there were no violence as locals watched the monument's removal from their windows.

Riza Halimi, a Serbian MP from the Albanian ethnic minority, said that Belgrade had failed to find a comprise solution.

Photo by Beta

“We were surprised by the Serbian police’s actions, because we were still negotiating for a joint solution until yesterday,” Halimi said.

The memorial to veterans of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac was installed last November in Presevo, which is home to some 50,000 ethnic Albanians.

The emergence of the ethnic Albanian guerrilla force, which was seeking to unite this southern part of Serbia with Kosovo in the late 1990s, resulted in armed conflict between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in 2000.

The fighters were disarmed in 2001 following an internationally-brokered peace deal.

Orhan Rexhepi, one of the Liberation Army’s former commanders , said that by removing the monument, Belgrade had proved how important the guerrillas’ struggle had been.

“I thank Serbia, because with this act it declared these fighters to be heroes,” said Rexhepi, adding that a fight for the towns of Presevo and Bujanovac to join Kosovo has now begun.

Photo by Beta

Paula Thiede, acting head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's mission in Serbia, which mediated in talks aimed at resolving the monument dispute, said she regretted that a compromise solution was not found.

“A joint solution was within a hand’s reach,” said Thiede.

Ragimi Mustafa, president of the Presevo municipality, said that it was not surprising that locals wanted to secede from Serbia.

"We share a border with Kosovo, we have same the language, the same culture," said Mustafa.

The dispute over the monument has seen dormant armed groups in Serbia and Kosovo publicly threaten attacks.

A shadowy Kosovo paramilitary group called the Albanian National Army and former Serbian security officers from the country’s long-dismantled but much-feared Special Operations Unit have both issued warnings about possible violent retribution in recent days.

The south Serbia region has been always perceived as ‘troubled’ by the Belgrade authorities because of its close ties with Kosovo.

In a local referendum in 1992, the vast majority of ethnic Albanians voted for territorial autonomy and the opportunity to join Kosovo, although the vote wasn’t recognised as valid by Belgrade or the international community.

The regime at that time, led by Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, conducted a policy of repression against ethnic minorities, particularly Albanians, which culminated in the Kosovo war in the late 1990s.

The biggest challenge for the area remains local ethnic Albanians’ lack of trust in Serbian institutions. Most of them view Pristina as their de facto capital, not Belgrade.

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