Ethnic Albanians want peacekeepers deployed in southern Serbia

BELGRADE, Feb 1, 2000 -- (AFP) A political party grouping ethnic Albanians has demanded the deployment of international peacekeepers in southern Serbia near the boundary with Kosovo, Beta news agency reported Monday.

The Democratic Action Party (PDD), also demanded "the withdrawal of the Yugoslav army and Serbian special police forces" from the regions of Medvedja, Presevo and Bujanovac, which border Kosovo, the agency said.

"The situation (in these regions) is difficult and is deteriorating," the party said in a statement, issued following the death of two ethnic Albanians whose relatives alleged they had been killed by the Serbian police.

Relatives said that Isa and Shaip Saqipi were shot dead Wednesday while chopping wood near their home village of Dobrosin, a few hundred meters (yards) inside Serbia and were buried on Sunday, in the presence of several thousand ethnic Albanians.

The PDD noted "mysterious explosions in Presevo, Bujanovac and Biljaca, armed attacks on the police, the deaths of a school principal and the Saqipi brothers in Dobrosin," and said the incidents "strengthened the feeling of insecurity among the local population."

The attacks have multiplied since October.

The party, which heads the council in Presevo, one of the main towns in the area, said "the Albanians have increasingly become the victims of illegal and anti-constitutional acts committed by the Serbian police."

Some 100,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, live in this southern Serbian region, part of which is a three-mile (five-kilometer) demilitarized zone on the boundary, which is out of bounds to Yugoslav troops and special police as well as to the NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers who are based in Kosovo.

But it is still open to local Serbian police under an accord between NATO and Belgrade.

Riza Halimi, the mayor of Presevo and head of the PDD, told AFP by telephone that there had been an increased presence of Serbian special police forces, armed with automatic guns, since last December.

"Although the zone is demilitarized, groups of between 10 and 15 policemen, in full war gear, cut across local roads, even those not leading to Kosovo," Halimi said.

Halimi said that, whenever he had asked the Belgrade authorities for an explanation for the increased police deployment they said it was because of "a possible influx of terrorists from Kosovo."

The police presence only "rises tensions in this region," Halimi said, but confirmed that there had been incursions by Kosovo Albanians into the area, mostly former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Considered as "terrorists" by Belgrade, the KLA was officially demilitarized and transformed into the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC) last September.

Witnesses said that 10 men in KLA uniforms were present at the funeral of the Saqipi brothers in Dobrosin on Sunday.

According to the Belgrade branch of the Helsinki Human Rights Committee, some 25,000 Albanians fearing Serb reprisals have fled the regions of Medvedja, Bujanovac and Presevo since last June, when Belgrade troops pulled out from Kosovo following an 11-week long NATO bombing campaign.