Serbian police driving out ethnic Albanians

BUJANOVAC, Yugoslavia, Mar 18, 2000 -- (Reuters) The mayor of an Albanian community in Serbia near the border with Kosovo Friday accused Serb police of using "low-intensity tension" to drive ethnic Albanians from the region.

Riza Halimi, mayor of Presevo, told AFP: "We hear much about the possibility of large-scale fighting. I think the opposite is more likely: the maintenance of low-intensity tension to contribute to ethnic cleansing."

"The key question is to find ways of persuading ethnic Albanians to stay," said Halimi. "Since December we have been confronted with the presence of special (Serb) police alongside a series of incidents causing tension."

Presevo, with a 90 percent ethnic Albanian population, lies on the border with Kosovo in an area where the population is largely ethnic Albanian.

Halimi said many in his community had reported being hassled and maltreated by police when they crossed local checkpoints. Local people say Serb police have flooded the area since the end of the Kosovo conflict last June.

The mayor, chairman of the Democratic Action Party, the main ethnic Albanian political group in south-eastern Serbia, called the treatment "de facto restriction of freedom of movement."

During NATO bombings of Serbia last year, about 25,000 ethnic Albanians left the area to take refuge in Macedonia, but most have since returned home.

However, since the end of the Kosovo war a series of murders and explosions have caused renewed tension and many Albanians have left, mainly for neighboring Kosovo.

One man was found riddled with bullets close to a road a short distance from the border with Kosovo.

"About 10,000 had left by the end of October but the figure now is more like 15,000," Halimi said.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees believes between 5,000 and 6,000 people have deserted the three largely Albanian-populated communities of Presevo, Bujanovic and Medvedja in this region.

Meanwhile in Belgrade, masked assailants beat and seriously injured an ethnic Albanian lawyer who defends Kosovar Albanians accused of terrorism by Serbia, a human rights official said Friday.

Husnija Bitiqi and his wife both suffered serious injuries after being attacked late Thursday in their Belgrade apartment by four masked men, said Natasa Kandic, head of the non-government Humanitarian Law Center.

Original article