Albanian officials from the Presevo region in southern Serbia have sent a letter of protest to Belgrade demanding the immediate release of a group of ethnic Albanians accused of war crimes against Serbs, as well as the pullout of Serbian special security forces from the area.
The 10 men were arrested in late December in the broader Presevo region, which has a large ethnic Albanian population. They are accused of kidnapping 159 people, mainly Serbs, and murdering at least 51 in 1999 during the Kosovo conflict as guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army. One has since been released on bail.
The area, which borders Kosovo, was the site of an insurgency in 2001 by the guerrilla Liberation Army of Presevo, Medveda and Bujanovac, UCPMB. The rebellion ended with a NATO-backed peace deal but dissatisfaction with Serbia remains high, with locals saying the government in Belgrade remains indifferent to the lack of jobs and economic development
The letter asked for “the unconditional release of the people arrested and an immediate stop to procedures from the office of the war crimes prosecutor in Belgrade, considering this office is unlawful and politically motivated”. Additionally it asked that authorities “find the perpetrators of all crimes committed against the Albanian civilian population in the Presevo Valley during the period of 1999-2001” and to “fully respect the amnesty of former UCPMB fighters”.
“We urge the international community, NATO, OSCE and EU, and the international guarantors of the 2001 peace agreement to stimulate and mediate new talks between the government of Serbia and Albanian political representatives in Presevo, Bujanovac and Medveda to … stop the deterioration of the political and security situation, ” the statement said.
The declaration is supported by seven parties in the local assembly, and officials also called a protest for Monday afternoon.
Shaip Kamberi, mayor of Bujanovac, called the arrests a violation of human rights of the detainees and their families. He said the entire process was “illegitimate, politically motivated, and was criminalising the entire ethnic Albanian community”.
Serbia’s brutal response to the KLA rebellion drew NATO into an 11-week bombing campaign that drove Serb forces out and put Kosovo under international supervision. The territory declared independence last February.