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Yugoslavia: Tension Prevails In 'Presevo Valley'

For more than a year, ethnic Albanian insurgents have been fighting with Serbian police units in southernmost Serbia. In this backgrounder, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports the trouble spot commonly called the "Presevo Valley" actually goes by a variety of names.

Prague, 15 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Journalists commonly refer to the site of recent Serb-ethnic Albanian tension in southernmost Serbia as the "Presevo Valley," but this in fact is inaccurate shorthand.

The Presevo Valley is actually the valleys of the Moravica and Binacka Morava rivers, which merge at Bujanovac to form the northward flowing Juzna Morava.

Serbian authorities often refer to the area as "Southern Serbia." While this is geographically accurate, it unfortunately recalls a phrase used between the world wars to refer to Macedonia, during a time that Belgrade denied the existence of a Macedonian nation. A very few liberal Belgrade publications refer to the area by its older name "Moravsko Kosovo."

Ethnic Albanians generally refer to the area as "Eastern Kosovo," since it was part of Kosovo proper until an administrative reform carried out after World War Two. At the time, Belgrade authorities sought to reduce the Albanian share of Kosovo's population by detaching the region and annexing it to Serbia. In exchange, the overwhelmingly ethnically Serb municipalities of Leposavic and Zubin Potok became part of Kosovo.

Regardless of its name, this fertile series of valleys just north of Serbia's border with Macedonia is of key strategic importance. It is bisected by the sole rail and highway route linking Serbia and Central and Western Europe with Macedonia and Greece.

The town of Presevo, at the southern end of the region, is 90 percent Albanian and has an Albanian mayor. The town has retained the character and atmosphere of a traditional Balkan market settlement and appears to have escaped significant recent investment from Belgrade.

Presevo Mayor Riza Halimi says ethnic Albanians in the area want "a certain level" of autonomy for the region to protect their rights.

Bujanovac, a significant town to the north, looks not unlike other Serbian towns of similar size. Bujanovac's modern square and new office buildings and apartments reveal some of the showy investment in civic works projects that took place under the regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

Ethnic Albanians make up 50 to 60 percent of the population in Bujanovac. But the municipal council has barred Albanians from holding more than a third of the seats. The head of the town council is a member of the Party of the Yugoslav Left of Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic. The visible presence of thousands of police, Interior Ministry special forces, and soldiers -- and the absence of many civilian residents who have fled -- give this town a tense appearance.

Two large villages near Bujanovac: Lucane, six kilometers to the west, and Veliki Trnovac, four kilometers to the northwest, are now in the hands of the ethnic Albanian insurgents. Neither appears to be poor or rundown. Both have undergone a recent building boom -- just as in Kosovo -- fueled largely by remittances from residents working abroad, mainly in Switzerland and Germany.

Serbian Interior Ministry special forces known as the "Red Berets" in late November surrounded Veliki Trnovac, home to some 10,000 ethnic Albanians. The berets barred residents from shopping in Bujanovac and threatened them with liquidation. The special forces withdrew in December but firefights continue between the insurgents in and around Veliki Trnovac and the police and army in Bujanovac.

There have been virtually no reports of unrest in a third area, Medvedja, which Albanian insurgents seek to annex to Kosovo. The area is 60 kilometers north of Bujanovac, beyond the sparsely populated 1,100-meter-high Goljak range. Albanians make up about a third of Medvedja's population.