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Serbia: Security Situation In Kosova Still Poses Dangers

One year ago, hard on the heels of withdrawing Serbian forces, NATO began deploying peacekeepers in Kosovo. To some extent, peace and security have since been restored in the province, with a notable decline in the crime rate. But RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from the capital Pristina that Kosovo remains a particularly dangerous place for members of ethnic minorities.

Pristina, 13 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Last week (June 6), for still unknown reasons, a Swedish peacekeeping patrol in Kosovo's Serbian enclave of Gracanica was attacked by stone-throwing Serbian residents.

The Swedes called in reinforcements. An hour later, a grenade was thrown at the Kosovar Serbs from a car that raced through Gracanica toward Pristina, injuring several people. After the car escaped police roadblocks, the Serbs became increasingly hostile, blocked the main road, attacked ethnic Albanians who were at the scene, and destroyed several civilian cars and United Nations police vehicles.

Then, more Swedish and British peacekeepers belonging to the NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers arrived, headed by the force's regional commander, British Brigadier Richard Sharreff. Sharreff explained to RFE/RL what happened next:

"I arrive on the scene, decide that initially--in order to restore order and restore confidence--the best way is to negotiate. I move into the crowd, start negotiating, get attacked. Shots are fired in order to get me out. Three Serbs are shot, one is hospitalized and that is basically the end of the incident."

KFOR's Swedish battalion, based at nearby Ajvalija, has direct responsibility for Gracanica. Its commander, Colonel Anders Braennstroem, subsequently issued a temporary order closing the road through Gracanica that links Pristina with the main town in southeastern Kosovo, Gnjilane (in Albanian: Gjilan). The Swedish officer says he will not reopen the road until his intelligence staff assures him it is safe:

"I am putting my intelligence [people there] every day. They are reporting to me many times every day what the situation in Gracanica is. It's not secure now. That's why I am holding it closed."

Colonel Braennstroem says his security concerns do not stop at Gracanica, but cover an ethnically mixed area of responsibility south and southeast of Pristina. He estimates that the area is currently inhabited by almost 10,000 Serbs, between 20,000 and 30,000 Albanians, and 1,000 Roma (gypsies). Travel for all of them is restricted, and some attempts by members of an ethnic group to move on their own between their villages or beyond have resulted in violent deaths.

British Brigadier Sharreff says one of the reasons the road through Gracanica has remained closed is the threat to Kosovar Albanians traveling through the area from irate Serb residents:

"My intention is to return that road to normality as quickly as possible. But just at [this] moment, the last thing I want is an Albanian getting dragged out of his car, beaten up, covered in petrol -- and the sort of problems we had [last week]."

Sharreff says KFOR is taking measures to enable traffic to go around Gracanica rather than through the village. But he says he is "not in the business of establishing tight enclaves, which are no-go areas for other people from different ethnic communities." Rather, Sharreff says, he is "in the business of creating areas where people can live with a degree of security and a degree of coexistence."

Sharreff calls his biggest current challenge reducing "the level of terrorism being directed at the Serb community in Kosovo." He says he understands why the local Serb population feels threatened and frightened, and why Kosovar Serbs have reacted violently to some of the attacks against them.

But the British commander says the terrorist attacks are not necessarily being committed by a coordinated organization, but rather by individuals who strike when an opportunity presents itself. He says determining just who is responsible for the violence depends on a painstaking gathering of information:

"My own view is that a lot of this is accountable to opportunist attacks -- what we would call 'cowboy shoots,' drive-by shootings and that sort of thing. However, there is evidence [that a] mine attack on the road between Preoce and Ugljare last week [was] clearly a well-planned attack."

Meanwhile, Sharreff says, KFOR is concentrating on creating conditions that improve not only the Serbian community's security but its quality of life. He says KFOR wants the Serbs to feel there is a future for them in Kosovo. That means trying to ensure the Serbs' freedom of movement, constructing roads linking their communities, creating employment and educational opportunities, assisting them with medical facilities, and establishing telephone communications. But he notes that all of this depends on the cooperation of what he terms "moderate Serbs, who are prepared to work together for the future."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, last week (June 9) issued a report which warned, in its words, that in Kosovo "the overall security situation and the resulting limitations on freedom of movement continue to be the major stumbling blocks inhibiting a return to normality for minority groups." The report said violence continues to be an everyday problem in the lives of many minority-group members.

The OSCE report also said that Kosovar minorities remain victims of crime at levels far higher than their share of the population. It noted, too, that "without basic security and freedom of movement [in the province], exercise of other rights becomes difficult or impossible."