(Reuters) – The monument in the town of Presevo was removed on Sunday by 200 masked Serbian police officers backed by armored personnel carriers. It bore the names of 27 ethnic Albanian guerrillas killed during a 2000 insurgency in the Presevo Valley, a spillover from the 1999 war in Kosovo, Serbia’s former province.
Thousands of ethnic Albanians protested in Serbia on Monday against the removal of a memorial to fallen guerrilla fighters and dozens of Serb graves in neighboring Kosovo were damaged in apparent retaliation.
Albania and Kosovo, which has an ethnic-Albanian majority, condemned the decision to remove the memorial, erected by the ethnic Albanian-dominated local council. Serbia, a candidate to join the European Union, said it would not be “humiliated”.
In Presevo, one of Serbia’s poorest regions bordering Kosovo and Macedonia, protesters waving Albanian flags and banners reading: “Stop discrimination” and “Europe, open your eyes”.
“The government says these men were terrorists, but people see them as heroes who defended their homes,” said Riza Halimi, a ethnic-Albanian parliamentary deputy.
The Presevo Valley conflict followed a Serbian counter-insurgency war in Kosovo, which ended in 78 days of NATO air strikes in 1999 to wrest control of the province from Belgrade.
Albanians in the Presevo Valley fought to unite with Kosovo, but laid down their arms under a NATO-brokered peace deal. Serbia pledged greater rights and economic opportunity for the impoverished south, but progress has been patchy.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but is not recognized by Serbia.
Kosovo warned removal of the memorial could undermine EU-mediated talks between it and Serbia aimed at normalizing relations. The talks are key to Serbia’s bid to join the EU.
On Monday, authorities in Kosovo said about 60 gravestones had been demolished at Serb cemeteries in the western town of Prizren and eastern village of Klokot.
Police said shots were fired at a memorial to Serbs killed during the 1998-99 war in the western enclave of Gorazdevac and that a monument to World War Two communist fighters had been destroyed in the eastern town of Vitina.
Police stepped up security around Serb Orthodox cemeteries.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which had been mediating to find a compromise on the memorial, said the decision to remove it had “undercut” the negotiations and appealed for calm.
Albania issued a statement saying the memorial was erected to honor “heroes of the Albanian nation” who had fought against late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic, ousted in October 2000.
“The racist, anti-Albanian legacy of Slobodan Milosevic is alive and dominates the official policy of Belgrade,” it said.
Serbia’s Prime Minister Ivica Dacic told reporters: “We are determined not to violate anybody’s human, national and civic rights, but no one has the right to humiliate Serbia.” ***
200 Serbian police remove Albanian rebel memorial UCPMB in south Serbia
(Reuters) – More than 200 heavily armed and masked Serbian police took down a memorial to ethnic Albanian guerrillas in Serbia’s south overnight, trying to end a row that has highlighted still-simmering tension in the region.
Security forces deployed armoured personnel carriers to cordon off the main square in the southern, mainly Albanian, town of Presevo, and hauled away the memorial bearing the names of 27 guerrillas who died during an insurgency in the region in 2001, a Reuters reporter at the scene said on Sunday.
The scale of the operation, which followed weeks of threats and counter-threats between Serbian government officials and local ethnic Albanians, highlighted how fragile the situation remains in the south, which borders Serbia’s former Kosovo province.
The government of Kosovo condemned the removal of the memorial, saying it “undermines the dialogue process to normalise relations between Kosovo and Serbia.”
Majority Albanian Kosovo declared independence in 2008 almost a decade after NATO air strikes wrested control of the territory from Belgrade to end a brutal Serbian counter-insurgency war.
The 2000-2001 insurgency in the southern Serbian regions of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac was widely seen as a spillover of the Kosovo conflict, as ethnic Albanians in Serbia’s south pressed to join newly free Kosovo.
NATO brokered a peace deal, and Serbia pledged greater rights and economic opportunity for the south. But progress has been patchy, and southern Serbia remains the poorest region of a country now aiming to join the European Union.
Ethnic Albanians regard the guerrillas as heroes. Serbia says they are terrorists.
“Serbia has shown enough patience, but it has also sent a clear and strong message that the law must be respected and that no one is stronger than the state,” Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said in comments carried by the state news agency Tanjug.
There were no incidents during the police operation.
There are other monuments to the guerrillas in the area, but the one removed overnight held pride of place on Presevo’s central square, in front of the local council building. Dacic had described it as a provocation.
Tensions in the region, known as the Presevo Valley, have the potential to complicate EU-mediated talks between Serbia and Kosovo aimed at normalising their relations five years after Kosovo declared independence.
In a statement, the government of Kosovo said it called on Albanians in the area to stay calm.
“This action by the government of Serbia is another proof that the hate against Albanians that live in the Presevo Valley is still alive,” the Kosovo government said in a statement.
Serbia does not recognise Kosovo as sovereign, but is under pressure to cooperate with the new country before the EU moves ahead with Belgrade’s bid to join the bloc.( REUTERS)