Diplomats protest at police checks near Kosovo

BELGRADE, Mar 7, 2000 -- (Reuters) A group of Belgrade-based diplomats said on Monday they had protested to the government about their treatment by Serb police during a recent visit to a sensitive area near Kosovo.

Lars Schmidt, first secretary of the Swedish embassy in Belgrade, said the European Union delegation had been stopped by police in the town of Presevo.

The town is part of an area near Kosovo whose Albanian and Serb inhabitants fear a repeat of the conflict which tore Kosovo apart before NATO deployed there last year.

Tensions in the region have spilled over in recent months into several clashes between police and Albanians, similar to those which sparked the Kosovo conflict two years ago.

"When we entered Presevo we were stopped and thoroughly searched," Schmidt said by telephone.

"The police didn't care about our diplomatic status," he said, adding that the police said they were looking for weapons.

Schmidt, who was accompanied by a diplomat from the EU's governing body, the European Commission, and another from the embassy of current EU president Portugal, said the delegation had informed the Foreign Ministry of their trip in advance.

He said they had not been forbidden to go but that two of the three local mayors they had planned to see told them they had been advised by the ministry to cancel the meetings.

Only one of the mayors, the ethnic Albanian head of Presevo, agreed to talk to them anyway, he said.

"It's a tense region," Schmidt said. "It's obvious they want to control and observe things."

Another European diplomat, who declined to be named, said police in the area had been dressed in the uniforms of local units but appeared and behaved like special forces.

"They were clearly special police officers from the way they looked," the diplomat said.

Schmidt said the diplomats had sent a protest note which he said would be followed up. Foreign Ministry officials were not immediately available for comment.

The diplomats said police had set up a checkpoint near the petrol station in Presevo, apparently to stop locals filling up with fuel. They also saw army troops in the area but could not tell if there was a build-up of forces. Army commanders have denied moving any fresh forces near the border zone.

The diplomats said that for security reasons they had not gone near the Albanian villages where a shadowy guerrilla group has been reported to be operating, after a United Nations employee was shot and injured there last week.

One diplomat said the atmosphere had not appeared explosive in surrounding areas during the visit on Friday.

"One can never tell, it could happen tomorrow, it could happen in a couple of years."

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