Serbia, Albanians in Showdown over Guerrilla Monument

Belgrade warned it could deploy police to help remove the memorial to ethnic Albanian fighters in south Serbia but local authorities vowed to legally resist.Serbia’s justice ministry said on Wednesday that the deadline to take down the controversial monument in the town of Presevo had already passed at midnight the previous day and urged the ethnic Albanian authorities there to act immediately.

“If they do not do so, the ministry of justice will launch a civil case against the mayor of Presevo,” justice minister Nikola Selakovic said.

He said the ministry would draft a plan for the removal of the monument in south Serbia and warned that police could be deployed to ensure that it is taken down.

“The monument will be removed according to the rules, and if necessary, with the assistance of the interior ministry,” Selakovic said.

But ethnic Albanian leaders in Presevo responded by saying they would mount a legal appeal.

One of them, Jonez Musliu, said that they “will not allow the removal or destruction of the monument”.

“Also we will hold a municipality parliament session during which we will file a procedure for the legalisation of the monument,” Musliu added.

The memorial to veterans of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac was installed last November in Presevo, which is home to some 50,000 ethnic Albanians.

The emergence of the ethnic Albanian guerrilla force, which was seeking to unite this southern part of Serbia with Kosovo in the late 1990s, resulted in armed conflict between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in 2000.

The fighters were disarmed in 2001 following an internationally-brokered peace deal.

The dispute over the monument has seen dormant armed groups in Serbia and Kosovo publicly threaten attacks.

A shadowy Kosovo paramilitary group called the Albanian National Army and former Serbian security officers from the country’s long-dismantled but much-feared Special Operations Unit have both issued warnings about possible violent retribution in recent days.

The dispute also sparked small rival protests in Serbia and Kosovo on Wednesday.

A war veterans’ association rallied in the south Serbian town of Prokuplje, describing the monument’s installation as an “act of terrorism”.

“We believe that Prime Minister [Ivica] Dacic should keep his promise to remove the shameful monument dedicated to Albanian terrorists who were killing Serbian policemen,” said Ratko Zecevic, the association’s president.

More than 200 demonstrators led by students also rallied in Pristina, shouting slogans like “Don’t touch my heroes”, and demanding that Kosovo and Albanian leaders defend the monument.

They accused what they decsribed as “fascist” Serbia of a “witch hunt” against ethnic Albanians in the Presovo area.

A US state department official meanwhile described the dispute as a “typical Balkan drama” and urged the Serbian authorities to address “more important issues”.

US deputy assistant secretary of state Philip Reeker said that “a solution should be found within the law and with the mediation of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe”.

Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci stepped into the row on Tuesday, criticising Belgrade for seeking to demolish the monument.

“The preservation of the cultural and historical heritage of all communities is a substantial obligation of democratic states,” Thaci said after a meeting with ethnic Albanian politicians from Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac.

“This democratic standard has to be respected by Serbia just the way it is respected by Kosovo,” Thaci said.

Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic has called the monument an “open provocation”, claiming that it promotes separatism.

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