Serbian enclave simmers as escorted convoys return

STRPCE, Jul 7, 2000 -- (AFP) A convoy of buses was to leave the Kosovo Serb village of Strpce Friday under military escort following the decision by international peacekeepers to lift sanctions on one of the province's most isolated and angry communities.

The twice weekly convoy is the lifeline for Strpce and a small enclave of villages around it through the hostility of surrounding ethnic Albanians to Serbia.

But the municipality's pre-war mayor Slavisa Redzic said the Strpce Serbs' reliance on the convoy had also proved to be their "Achilles' heel."

When the US-led KFOR brigade in charge of security around the villages refused to provide an escort, in response to the ransacking of local UN offices, they had found a way to "blackmail" Strpce, Redzic said.

Redzic described the June 24 attack on Strpce's UN office as a "spontaneous" expression of grief and anger by friends and relatives of a local shepherd who had gone missing. He was later found dead, apparently abducted and murdered as he tended his flock.

On Wednesday, KFOR troops arrested a Strpce man in connection with the riot, sparking more anger, but no violence. Late the same day a crowd gathered in Strpce's main square to hear local leaders express fury but urge them to stay calm.

The acting UN administrator in Strpce, Mahfuzur Rahman, said the restraint shown was instrumental in getting the return of the convoy escort.

"There have been two demonstrations since the offices were ransacked but they were peaceful. Local Serb leaders told people that if they had played a role in the riot they should give themselves up, rather than risk being arrested in front of their wives and children. I am grateful for that," he said.

Serb sources told AFP the arrested man was released late Thursday.

But the relative calm does not mean the people of Strpce are not angry, especially after a convoy that attempted to reach the village from Serbia without an escort was stoned, injuring three passengers.

The most visible sign of their resistance was Zoran Popovic, an artist whom locals know as Zanko. A close friend of the arrested man -- who locals identified as Radojko Kecic, the owner of a photography shop -- Popovic held a two day hunger strike to demand his release.

Sitting on the steps of Strpce's dilapidated cultural center in the oven like heat of the Balkan heatwave, Popovic accused KFOR and the United Nations of failing to protect Serbs from kidnapping and murder at the hands of ethnic Albanian extremists.

"They have thousands of troops and police here, but what do they do? Do they want to protect us or force us out?" he said.

Strpce is the name of both the village and its municipality of 16 communities in a valley high in Kosovo's southern mountains. Rahman said that of the villages, four are ethnic Albanian, five mixed, and seven, including Strpce, are Serbian.

At a July 4 news conference US General Randal Tieszen, the commander of KFOR's eastern brigade, described his decision to suspend convoy escorts and freeze investment in Strpce as "logical."

There was no point, he said, in expending KFOR and the United Nations' limited manpower and operations in a community that might attack his troops or smash up UN property. The ban was not a punishment, he insisted, and would be lifted as soon as Strpce gave some sign it was ready to cooperate.

The door may be open to talk to the international authorities, but for Serbs like Miroslav Vidojkovic, a 41-year-old teacher of computer science at Strpce's high school, the village feels very shut in.

Vidojkovic arrived in February from his native Nis, in Serbia, and he has a very simple reason for wanting to see the convoys return. "I am going to leave on one of them," he said.

Original article