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Yugoslavia: Violence In Kosovo And Serbia Presents Challenge For Peace

Two violent anti-Serb landmine attacks in recent days have ratcheted up ethnic tensions on both sides of the boundary between Kosovo and southern Serbia. As RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports, Serb authorities are convinced the attacks are intended to wreck a recently adopted peace plan for southern Serbia.

Prague, 19 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Kosovo and southern Serbia's Presevo Valley are experiencing the worst violence in a year and a half. Most -- though not all -- of the violence has been directed at Serbs.

Shortly before noon Friday someone using a wired remote control set off a mine planted under the main road from Serbia into Kosovo, about two kilometers inside Kosovo near Podujevo. The apparent target was a convoy of buses heading from the Serbian city of Nis to the ethnic Serb enclave of Gracanica, near Pristina. Whoever gave the signal for the mine to explode waited for two Swedish KFOR armored personnel carriers to pass and only triggered the explosive as the first bus reached the point where the mine was buried.

One of the passengers on the first bus later told RFE/RL what happened:

"There was just one detonation. At that moment, I went flying ... I woke up, looked ahead but there was no bus left."

KFOR says two Albanian males were detained shortly after the blast and are still being held.

Three days after the attack, KFOR is still not sure how many people were killed. Several bodies were blown to bits. The death toll stands at eight, with as many as seven still missing. Over 40 passengers were injured, 10 of them seriously.

On Sunday, a Serbian police vehicle struck two mines that were buried overnight under a dirt road outside the village of Lucane in southern Serbia's Presevo Valley. All three policemen were killed.

The author of a government-approved peace plan, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic, was quick to link the two attacks. Covic believes the attacks were an attempt to wreck his plan for integrating Albanians into the mainstream in southern Serbia, while demilitarizing the area.

"It is a classic terrorist act, a hate crime, that simply unleashes a spiral [of violence]. It is impossible not to connect this with the crime [the bus bombing] committed on the territory of Kosovo a few days ago. So it is the terrorists' response -- a provocation -- to the entire international community, which has been supporting the plans and program of the federal and republic governments for a peaceful solution to the crisis in southern Serbia."

Asked by journalists whether the attacks will delay the start of talks between Serb authorities and local Albanian leaders expected later this month, Covic responded that even "we as a state...have our limits."

Similarly Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic says he considers the attacks an attempt to prevent a Serb-Albanian dialogue from starting.

"[The perpetrators] have resorted to terrorism. Quite simply, they do not want normal dialogue. They are taking a stand in which bombs and guns speak loudest."

Yugoslav federal Interior Minister Zoran Zivkovic says there is no doubt that what he terms "Albanian extremists" are behind the attacks.

"Over the past few days, there has been a maximum escalation of Albanian terrorism and extremism in Kosovo and on the territory of the three southern Serbian communities (Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac). This clearly shows there are not two or three sides in this conflict but just one which wants the conflict to continue."

Kosovo's main Albanian leaders have denounced the bombings, although most left it to deputies to do the speaking.

The president of the most popular party in Kosovo, the Democratic League of Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova, issued a statement saying "acts like this destroy efforts of the people of Kosovo and the international community to reconstruct a democratic society for all citizens of Kosovo."

One leading Kosovo politician, Democratic Party leader Hashim Thaci, did not denounce the bombings and has remained conspicuously silent. Thaci was the political commander two years ago of the now-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, or UCK. Thaci has been slow to react to previous acts of violence and his remarks have been lukewarm.

In marked contrast, another former UCK commander who has his own political party, Ramush Haradinaj of the Alliance Party of Kosovo, has not only denounced the bombing as a "terrorist act" but has called on Albanians to aid the security forces in their investigation.

KFOR and the UN police have repeatedly complained that little progress is made investigating acts of violence because the public is generally unwilling to cooperate with investigators.

A Kosovo non-governmental organization led by the province's foremost dissident, Adem Demaci's Council for Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms, has also denounced the bus attack. It says the attack was a "premeditated and well-planned crime" aimed at keeping Kosovo in a state of what it called "fever and tension."

One of Kosovo's leading intellectuals, newspaper publisher Veton Surroi, wrote in his "Koha Ditore" daily over the weekend the bus bombing signaled an intent to prevent the implementation of plans to bring displaced Serbs back to Kosovo for resettlement.

Another Kosovar Albanian newspaper publisher, Blerim Shala, writing in his daily "Zeri," said that although there may be some mystery surrounding the attack, he says the question of blame is completely transparent. He says all Kosovar Albanians have to bear responsibility.

Some Kosovo Serbs responded to the bus bombing with violence against ethnic Albanians. KFOR says a crowd of 1,000 Serbs blocked roads at Caglavica, south of Pristina, in protest and threw rocks at passing cars and pedestrians. Eight Albanian residents were wounded and two vehicles were destroyed. KFOR says in the nearby village of Laplje Selo, a group of Serbs forced 17 Albanians off a bus and set it on fire.

In Gracanica, the destination of the ill-fated bus, more than 1,500 Serbs gathered yesterday to light candles for the dead and march down the main street in protest as an air raid siren wailed for the dead.

The British commander of KFOR's multinational brigade center, Brigadier Robert Fry, personally oversaw the gathering to ensure it did not get out of hand.

"I think the situation here is a matter of balancing what are the very legitimate and thoroughly understandable concerns of the local community with my requirement to make sure the rule of law is not compromised in any way."

His unit is responsible for the road where the bus was bombed as well as for Gracanica.