Officials pledge to calm Kosovo border area

PRESEVO, Yugoslavia, Mar 17, 2000 -- (Reuters) Local Serb officials in the tense Presevo valley in southeastern Serbia say they are doing what they can to stop violence that is threatening to explode into a new war.

But the leader of the majority Albanian population says their frank admissions of mistakes in state policy and pledges to make amends have yet to lead to improvements on the ground, where three civilians have been killed in the past 10 days.

The deaths bring to eight the number of Albanian civilians killed in the area since NATO's air strikes over Kosovo last year, the Albanian mayor of Presevo, Riza Halimi, said, adding that 11 others were killed by Serb forces during the bombing.

Tensions between police and a newly emerged armed Albanian group spilled over in late January. A police major and an armed Albanian have since joined the list of victims.

Serb officials blame the guerrillas for the deaths of some civilians and local Albanians acknowledge that some of them were not liked for their links with the Serbs.

But the officials themselves acknowledged that police were responsible for some of the violence, without being specific.

"What the Albanians said is true, there were excesses. Fifteen policemen were expelled for excesses," Caslav Ristic, head of the Pcin region that includes the towns of Presevo and Bujanovac near the boundary with Kosovo, said in an interview.

"There were mistakes, in such chaos there are bound to be mistakes, but we want to make up for those mistakes," he said.

Halimi says the heavily-armed police in the area are only helping to push a population which, unlike in Kosovo, does not support the idea of armed rebellion, towards the extremists.


"Killings have continued even with extra police. Police reinforcements are not the answer," he said.

Ristic said the interior ministry had agreed to take rigorous control over its personnel and punish reported crimes.

But Halimi, whose influence over the local Albanian population spreads far wider than Presevo, was doubtful.

"I have spoken with Ristic about it and I believe he is well intentioned, but I haven't seen anything in practice."

A few days ago in Radobucja village police extorted 3,000 German marks from six Albanian families who then fled, he said, adding: "Maybe these conversations should be on a higher level."

Another Serb official in the region said controlling police sent in by Belgrade was not so easy.

"They don't always listen to us. They have to have full autonomy because they have to react quickly. And sometimes we don't have enough influence," he said.

Ristic said Kosovo's NATO-led peacekeepers and Albanian extremists both bore responsibility for stopping the spread of the guerrillas now based in the border village of Dobrosin, saying police had stopped going there after a clash in January.

On Thursday, U.S. sources said their peacekeepers had seized arms, ammunition and uniforms in a sweep of eastern Kosovo near the boundary with the Presevo valley.

Halimi welcomed Ristic's proposal to reemploy local Albanians in the police force but said the police should either be under his control or foreign observers brought in.

He also said he hoped Ristic would be able to fulfil his pledge to meet a request from Jiri Dienstbier, U.N. Human Rights investigator, for Kosovo Serb police to be withdrawn.

"They can't get over the war. It is in their heads and they are spreading it here," Halimi said.

Original article