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Assassinated Serb Politician Symbolized Tensions Still Brewing In Northern Kosovo


Oliver Ivanovic (1953-2018)

Kosovar Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic, who was gunned down outside his office in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica, rose to prominence after the war in 1999 despite questions surrounding his activities during the conflict.

The 64-year-old died on January 16 after an attacker shot him several times as he arrived at his office in northern Kosovo, reportedly in a drive-by killing.

With allegations swirling over his role in the war that erupted during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Ivanovic in some ways embodied the kaleidoscopic decades of conflict and distrust in the volatile Balkans -- underscored by his ongoing retrial for alleged war crimes during Kosovo's brutal 1998-99 war with Yugoslav and Serb forces.

Kosovar Interior Minister Flamur Sefaj condemned Ivanovic's killing in a statement saying that the violence would not help the reconciliation process.

"I express my regrets for the murder of Oliver Ivanovic, and I express my sincere condolences to his family. I call on all citizens to cooperate with the authorities in solving this case and such acts do not help our society in its efforts for rule of law. I call on Kosovo citizens to keep calm and wait for the results of the investigations of the responsible institutions," Sefaj said in the statement.

He vowed that officials were "committed to solve this case as soon as possible and bring the perpetrators to justice."

Ethnic Tensions

A former karate champion, Ivanovic clashed with politicians on all sides in a country still deeply divided by tensions between majority ethnic Albanians and the Serb minority.

"In times of conflict and hatred, Oliver Ivanovic was a man of cooperation and tolerance. Oliver was a man of peace," said Dragan Sutanovic, a former defense minister in neighboring Serbia, which continues to reject Kosovo's declaration of sovereignty in 2008. "It is our duty to not allow the world of the past to be dominated by these bullets."

As a young boy Ivanovic said he wanted to be a pilot, but his poor eyesight shattered that dream and after a three-year stint at the then-Yugoslav Military Academy in Zagreb, now the Croatian capital, he eventually completed an engineering degree.

He earned a reputation for battling while studying by earning his black belt in karate and eventually winning a Kosovar martial-arts championship.

He became a leader of Serb troops as they fought Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) forces in 1998-99, a role that would later be at the center of a war crimes conviction -- eventually overturned -- for alleged atrocities against ethnic Albanians.

A NATO air campaign eventually forced Serbia to withdraw its troops, but European Union monitors remain in Kosovo.

With Kosovo in turmoil following the end of the war in 1999, he became the leader of the "Bridge Watchers," a group of Serb hard-liners who patrolled the main bridge in Mitrovica that divides the town into Serb and Albanian sectors.

His rise in full swing, he was appointed a minister in the Assembly of Kosovo after parliamentary elections in 2001 and he was a leader of the Serb List for Kosovo and Metohija in parliamentary elections held in October 2004.

In 2008 Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, and Ivanovic became State Secretary of the Ministry for Kosovo and Metohija in the Government of Serbia and a member of the Coordinating Centre for Kosovo and Metohija.

War-Crimes Trial

Police arrested him in 2014 and two years later Ivanovic was convicted of war crimes by a panel of international judges for ordering the murder of nine ethnic Albanians in April 1999. But 10 months later, the conviction was overturned and the case sent back for retrial.

Ivanovic, who was facing a retrial, had pleaded not guilty to the charges, saying the prosecution was politically motivated.

"He was convicted despite bearing no trace of guilt and now he gets killed, it turns out he was safer in jail than free," Serbian Tourism and Trade Minister Rasim Ljajic said, adding that friends of Ivanovic had told him the Kosovo politician was very worried in the days leading up to the killing.

Ethnic tensions still simmer in Kosovo, and violence has flared up several times since the end of the war.

Ivanovic's arrest in 2014 led to protests by ethnic Serbs in Kosovo and strong objections from Belgrade, which does not recognize the independence of its former province.

Last year he warned about the security environment in Kosovo, only to see one of his vehicles burned outside his home in Mitrovica, a Serb stronghold in northern Kosovo, in the run-up to local elections.

Ivanovic's death came on the day officials from Serbia and Kosovo were to hold European Union-mediated talks in Brussels on improving relations. Those talks were postponed after news of the killing.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who often clashed with Ivanovic, described the assassination as an "act of terror" and called for an emergency national security meeting over the killing.

Vucic said he asked EU and United Nations officials in Kosovo to include Serbian security forces to investigate Ivanovic’s killing.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and has been recognized by 115 countries, though not by Serbia nor its ally, Russia.

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