Protesters rallied in the town of Presevo on Monday after Serbian police moved in to remove a monument to ethnic Albanian fighters.Several thousand ethnic Albanians rallied on Monday in Presevo in southern Serbia following Belgrade’s removal of a controversial monument dedicated to Albanian guerrillas.
Demonstrators at the peaceful hour-long rally carried banners saying “Stop violence and discrimination”, “Europe, open your eyes” and “Stop Albanophobia”.
Around 200 Serbian police moved in to Presevo early on January 20 to take down the memorial after the Belgrade government said it promoted ethnic separatism and had to go.
Politicians in Pristina and Tirana have condemned the removal while protesters in Presevo expressed anger that Belgrade sent in the riot-clad officers.
“When we saw all these police forces, it looked like they were on a mission to arrest a world-class terrorist or something like that,” said one man at the protest rally, Belul Halilt.
The memorial, to veterans of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, was erected last November in Presevo, which is home to some 50,000 ethnic Albanians.
The ethnic Albanian guerrilla force sought to unite southern Serbia with Kosovo in the late 1990s but disarmed in 2001 following an internationally-brokered peace deal.
Local Albanians had vowed to defend the monument but police in riot gear met no resistance when they entered the town.
Instead, after police left on Sunday, locals gathered around the site of the ex-monument and lit candles and laid flowers.
Serbia’s Prime Minister, Ivica Dacic, said that police had to act after deadlines for the municipality to remove the monument had expired.
“Serbia has shown enough patience but it had to show that laws must be respected,” Dacic said.
After the monument was removed, the Kosovo government condemned the move as “further proof that hatred towards Albanians in the Presevo valley is still alive.
“This ugly move of the Serbian government seriously jeopardises the dialogue for normalisation of Kosovo-Serbia relations and Serbia has direct responsibility for that,” it said, referring to EU-led talks in Brussels .
However, Aleksandar Vulin, head of Serbia’s Kosovo office, said that the Brussels dialogue and the Presevo monument were two separate issues that should not be connected.
Vulin told Tanjug news agency on January 20 that Serbia had obeyed its own laws by removing the monument and the move should not be interpreted as an act of hate.
But the Albanian government alleged it was racist.
“We consider the this act a testimony to the Serbian authorities’ phobia of Albanians, which clearly shows that the racist legacy of [former Serbian strongman leader] Slobodan Milosevic is still alive and dominates official policy in Belgrade,” Albania’s council of ministers said in a statement on Monday.
The region around Presevo has long been seen as troubled by the Belgrade authorities because of its large Albanian community and close ties with Kosovo.
In a local referendum in 1992, most local Albanians voted for territorial autonomy and the right to join Kosovo. The vote wasn’t recognised as valid by Belgrade or the international community, but most locals continue to view Pristina as their de facto capital, not Belgrade.