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Farmers' Protest In Kosovo Turns Violent

PRISTINA -- Police say 21 people were injured when a protest by grape growers in southwest Kosovo turned violent, RFE/RL's Balkan Service reports.

Some 500 farmers came with their tractors to the town of Rahovec on September 17 to protest the government's inability to find buyers for their grapes.

"The protest turned violent," Hazir Berisha, the spokesman for the Kosovo police in the Prizren region, told RFE/RL, with farmers throwing stones and other objects at Stone Castle, the company which is the main wine producer in the region. "Special police forces had to intervene using tear gas."

The head of the association of winegrowers, Labinot Berisha, said the situation is out of control.

"We have had talks with representatives of Stone Castle but without results," he said. "After the last meeting, the situation deteriorated. We urge the government to intervene without further delay."

The area around Rahovec is well-known in Kosovo for its vineyards. There are 3,500 hectares of vineyards in the region along with some 2,000 winegrowers.

As the biggest wine producer in the region, Stone Castle is the top buyer of local grapes.

But this year the company refused to buy grapes from local farmers due to overproduction from last year and a lack of space in its warehouses. As result, 6 million kilograms of grapes could be lost unless new buyers are found. Local farmers could lose an estimated 10 million euros ($13 million).

The farmers are asking the government to take urgent measures to help them find new markets.

"Our abilities to compete with other markets are very weak," said Agim Shahini, the leader of the Kosovo Alliance of Businesses. He is urging the government to implement policies to support local farmers.

Kosovo's government does not subsidize the local farmers. After the September 17 protest, the Agriculture Ministry proposed that the government come up with a plan to offer financial help to grape growers.

The agricultural sector in Kosovo was severely damaged during the years of ethnic conflict in the late 1990s. Some observers say recent governments have not paid the required attention to Kosovo's farmers.