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Yugoslavia: Ethnic Tensions Running High In Serbia's Presevo Valley

Recent ethnic violence in the Kosovo city of Mitrovica has distracted the attention of international media from another region where tensions between Serbs and Albanians are heating up -- the Presevo Valley in southern Serbia, just to the east of Kosovo. RFE/RL Correspondent Ron Synovitz examines the situation in the area.

Prague, 1 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Ethnic tensions are running high in the Presevo Valley, the southernmost part of Serbia still administered by Belgrade. NATO intelligence confirms that ethnic Albanian extremists are responsible for a series of recent bomb attacks on Serbian targets in the region. NATO officials -- who asked to remain anonymous -- say the extremists have been crossing into Serbia proper from Kosovo.

At the same time, NATO also has confirmed that Belgrade has sent 400 well-armed Interior Ministry police to the area since the attacks began in December. They are bolstering a strong police and Yugoslav Army presence that has existed since the army's Pristina Corps withdrew to the Presevo Valley last June.

In the region's latest violence, a United Nations humanitarian worker was shot in both legs yesterday by unknown attackers while driving on the Serbian side of the five-kilometer demilitarized zone that divides Kosovo from Serbia proper. That attack came after a weekend gunfight in the village of Konculj, also located on the Serbian side of the demilitarized zone near the town of Bujanovac. The state-run Yugoslav Tanjug news agency reports that a Serbian policeman and an ethnic Albanian were killed in the gunfight.

An RFE/RL correspondent who traveled to Konculj after the clash says ethnic Albanians in the village are living in fear of Serbian police, who are entering houses at random and beating residents. Many have now left the village.

Our correspondent also says the current pattern of discrimination and police brutality around Presevo is reminiscent of Belgrade's policies in Kosovo during the 1990s.

Riza Halimi, the ethnic Albanian mayor of Presevo, says Serbian police have been very active in the last two months and that their behavior toward ethnic Albanians has been brutal. Halimi says his office has collected many statements from ethnic Albanians who attest to having been physically mistreated by Serbian police.

"During December, after those first explosions that took place in Bujanovac and Presevo, we witnessed a significant buildup of police forces. On the other hand, we haven't noticed any changes in the army's movements."

Ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia say Belgrade is attempting, once again, to carry out ethnic cleansing of a region where Serbs are in the minority. Before fighting broke out between Yugoslav forces and Kosovar Albanians in early 1998, there were about 100,000 ethnic Albanians living in or around Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja.

In the past year, according to ethnic Albanian sources, about 20,000 have fled to Kosovo from the three towns. A spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Pristina, Pola Gedini confirms that 6,000 ethnic Albanians from the towns have been registered in Kosovo's capital. She estimates that at least another 2,000 ethnic Albanians who have fled have not been registered.

RFE/RL's correspondent in the region reports that few ethnic Albanians now remain in Medvedja -- a town that had been comprised mostly of ethnic Albanians two years ago.

In Brussels, NATO officials say radical elements of the former Kosovo Liberation Army, or UCK, who are known to be infiltrating the Presevo Valley now wear a new acronym as insignia -- UCPMB, which stands for the Liberation Organization for Presevo-Medvedja-Bujanovac. NATO Supreme-Commander General Wesley Clark last week urged ethnic Albanian leaders in Kosovo and Macedonia to use their influence to discourage fresh violence by these extremists.

Since Clark's talks with former UCK chief Hashim Thaci and Macedonian Albanian leader Arben Xhaferri, both have published statements warning that provocations in southern Serbia will only benefit Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. But Belgrade has banned Albanian-language newspapers from Serbia proper.

Djura Lazic, a Yugoslav minister without portfolio, says the aim of ethnic Albanian attacks is to provoke Serbian police action and portray ethnic Albanians in the area as being under threat. He said their ultimate aim is to justify a new NATO intervention.

NATO officials say they have no intention of sending alliance troops into the Presevo Valley. NATO has increased its border patrols on the Kosovo side of the 5-kilometer demilitarized zone with Serbia proper in a bid to stop infiltrations and weapon smuggling.

NATO spokesman Francois le Blevennec says those moves reflect the alliance's policy of keeping extremists from both sides from escalating the crisis:

"We are even-handed and we will stop those who want to destabilize the region, particularly in this [Presevo Valley] area. We will do everything we can to stop extremists from both sides -- and we underline three times: both sides -- from causing trouble."

Macedonia, which is immediately south of the Presevo Valley, has also placed its troops on alert along its border with Serbia proper. The Macedonian border guard has been reinforced and the frequency of border patrols increased.