01 February 2006

Serbia faces another territorial challenge amid Kosovo talks



Source: Agence France-Presse (AFP)

Date: 16 Jan 2006


BELGRADE, Jan 16, 2006 (AFP) - A bid by ethnic Albanians for the autonomy of three southern Serbian towns risks escalating tension as talks on the future status of the neighbouring province of Kosovo enter a crucial phase, according to Serbian officials quoted in Monday's media.


At a joint session at the weekend, the municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, where the Albanian population forms an overall majority, adopted a platform calling for political and territorial independence from Serbia.


The Albanians would seek unification with neighbouring Kosovo in the event of any regional border changes resulting from the talks on the province, according to the initiative unveiled Saturday in Presevo, 400 kilometres (250 miles) south of Belgrade.


In an apparent bid to benefit from the talks, the southern Serbian Albanians have called for the creation of special bonds with Kosovo and the establishment of a local police force to secure the region's frontiers.


The demands were rejected by the Serbian government, which denounced them as "inspired" by Albanian leaders in Kosovo as part of their tactics in the negotiations on the UN-administered province.


A Serbian minister said the Albanian plan was a "political and tactical move," an attempt to thwart the claims of Kosovo Serbs for decentralisation in areas of the province in which they are a majority.


"Demands for autonomy and special relations, the withdrawal of (Serbian) troops and police, are unrealistic political options, which have not received any support from the international community," Human Rights Minister Rasim Ljajic, who also heads Belgrade's Coordination Body for Southern Serbia, told independent B92 radio.


"Without wanting to be paranoid, the similarity of the claim (with that of Serbs in Kosovo) is so obvious that it pokes you in the eye," said Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, the Serbian official in charge of the Kosovo issue, as quoted by the state-run Tanjug news agency.


Serbia said last week that Serb-populated areas of Kosovo should be allowed to band together to form institutions to guarantee their rights. It is expected to adopt this stance during direct Kosovo status talks due to start in Vienna next week.


The status of Kosovo, which has been administered by the United Nations since mid-1999, is expected to be defined this year in the talks led by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari.


Belgrade insists that granting ethnic Albanians -- who make up more than 90 percent of Kosovo's population -- their wish for independence would destabilise the Balkan region.


The Albanians of southern Serbia said that they could start a campaign of "disobedience" towards Belgrade authorities if their "historical" initiative is not accepted.


The toughening of the stance of the Presevo valley Albanians is likely to revive tensions in the region where clashes occurred in 2000 and 2001 between Serbian forces and the now disbanded Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac Liberation Army (UCPMB).


The army of Serbia-Montenegro reinforced its presence in the area in November 2003, bringing an end to the conflict, but the return of stability to the zone has been complicated by its poor economic situation, a problem that Belgrade has had trouble rectifying.


The southern Albanians have already expressed their dissatisfaction with Belgrade by boycotting Serbian state institutions.


The risk of tensions in the area seems all the more real as, in line with the Albanians of Presevo valley, the Gorani, or Slavic Muslims, in the extreme south of Kosovo demanded to be recognised as a national minority on Sunday.