The tense situation in southernmost Serbia's Presevo valley continues to fester as ethnic Albanian insurgents and Serbian security forces jockey for position. But, as RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports, the Serbian government is offering a peace proposal that appears to have a chance of gaining Albanian support.
Prague, 5 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Serbian peace proposal calls for integrating the Presevo valley's 70,000 ethnic Albanian residents into mainstream Serbian political and social life. It also offers civil rights guarantees and promises of economic development.
The plan does not envision autonomy for the area nor does it allow for the possibility of annexing the ethnically mixed area to nearby Kosovo, as the insurgents would like. Instead, the plan, developed by Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic, envisages decentralizing power to local authorities.
The Covic plan also calls for demilitarizing the Presevo valley, starting with the speedy, internationally supervised demilitarization of two ethnic Albanian villages that have been in insurgent hands since December: Veliki Trnovac and Lucane, both near Bujanovac.
The Bujanovac district, which is between 50 percent and 60 percent ethnic Albanian, and Presevo, which is nearly 90 percent ethnic Albanian, are of strategic importance since they are bisected by Yugoslavia's sole rail and highway link with Macedonia and Greece.
Covic concedes it is likely to be an uphill battle to win Albanian support for his plan, but he remains optimistic.
"If you ask me now whether moderate Albanians would agree to participate in local government, I'd say I don't know. I hope so. If you ask me when the Albanians will speak in the republic and federal parliaments, I'd respond that I don't know. I hope soon. If you ask me whether in southern Serbia we have multicultural ties and relations, I'd say definitely, without a doubt. If you ask me if in southern Serbia there are any multiethnic ties, I'd say yes, but they are in the mafia and with criminal characters and [criminal] acts."
The Covic plan is hoped to put an end to interethnic fighting that has flared sporadically since the end of NATO's bombing in Kosovo. Serbian police say that in the past year 17 people were killed in attacks in the Presevo valley. In addition, 41 people were wounded. Police also say there have been 15 abductions over the past year and that five people, including an Albanian, are still missing.
The statistics do not include this year's casualties. The Yugoslav army earlier reported that one soldier died last month for wounds incurred the day before in a clash with the rebels near Bujanovac. But Serbian police have not confirmed the insurgents' claims of having killed three policemen near Gornja Susaja on January 19.
The ethnic Albanian mayor of Presevo, Riza Halimi, has welcomed the Covic plan. But in contrast to Covic and other Serb leaders, Halimi says the insurgents must be included in any negotiations.
A group calling itself the Political Council for Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac, believed to be functioning as the political representative of the insurgent movement, has also welcomed Covic's plan as a starting point for talks. Tahir Dalipi, a leading member of the council, spoke by telephone with RFE/RL's Kosovo unit.
"This initiative represents an important change toward solving the problem here. But we have not yet seen the full proposal. [What we have seen] has some positive elements. But it is still far from being a good basis for negotiations for [a] good solution."
Dalipi describes as "positive" Covic's pledge for a peaceful solution: "we believe this is not just a Serbian oral promise. They recognize that Albanians have not received equal treatment with Serbs."
Asked whether a full demilitarization of Serbian forces and the insurgents in the Presevo valley is possible, Dalipi responds:
"Everything is possible, but only so long as someone will guarantee the security of the Albanians living in this area. There must be international control because the sides in the conflict do not trust each other."
Covic presented the plan last week to EU representatives. And Serbia's new premier, Zoran Djindjic, on a visit to Washington, presented the plan to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Djindjic later told reporters that Powell "supported our strategy to solve these problems by political means and not by violence."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. and its allies will carefully review the Covic plan. He said the plan "provides a basis for starting a peaceful process to end the conflict."
But when Djindjic returned to Belgrade Sunday, he declared that Belgrade has "had a carte blanche for 10 days to fix this problem." He did not say who if anyone had given the Serbian government the green light. But he noted "the United States wants terrorism in southern Serbia to stop."
"As far as the situation in southern Serbia is concerned, I told the American administration that the terrorism has to stop, that there can be no bargaining or compromise with armed civilians who are destabilizing this region."
The U.S. commands a multinational NATO brigade in southeastern Kosovo that borders the Presevo valley. Most of the insurgents' weapons are believed to be smuggled into southern Serbia across the boundary with Kosovo.
Meanwhile, fighting near Bujanovac yesterday knocked out an electricity transformer, blacking out at least six villages in the area but causing no casualties.
The federal minister for minorities, Rasim Ljajic, an ethnic Bosniak, speaking to reporters in Bujanovac today, responded to yesterday's clashes by accusing the insurgents of trying to prevent the beginning of political talks for solving the crisis.
Trouble in the area began after Serbian forces capitulated to NATO in June 1999 and withdrew from Kosovo. Many of the withdrawing units forces redeployed in the Presevo valley. The agreement that secured their withdrawal barred the Yugoslav army and heavy weaponry from a five-kilometer wide zone along Serbia's boundary with Kosovo. Police, however, are allowed into the area.
Ethnic Albanian residents experienced repeated cases of harassment, mainly at roadblocks on the edge of the zone and then began fleeing the area. After the harassment worsened and Serbian snipers shot and killed two Albanian brothers on a tractor in a field near the border village of Dobrosin in January of last year, some of the remaining male residents founded the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac, or UCPMB. The group initially functioned as a self-protection militia of a few dozen men, based at Dobrosin.
But UCPMB commanders were soon saying that they hoped to draw NATO into a conflict with Yugoslavia in southern Serbia and expel Serbian forces from the three Albanian-inhabited districts. NATO and the United States repeatedly rejected the scenario. KFOR responded by a series of attempts to crack down on gun-running between Kosovo and the UCPMB.
After the fall of Slobodan Milosevic last October, the insurgents stepped up their campaign in the apparent hope of taking advantage of political flux in Belgrade and seized control of several ethnic Albanian communities beyond the five-kilometer-wide "ground security zone." Milosevic's successor, Vojislav Kostunica, responded in late November by deploying large numbers of police, special forces, and soldiers in the Presevo valley. But the insurgents still managed to push them out of Lucane and Veliki Trnovac. The international community's insistence on a peaceful solution has so far staved off a violent crackdown by Belgrade.