By Marija Ristic and Edona Peci
The UN appealed for an easing of tensions after a demonstration sparked by Belgrade’s removal of a controversial memorial to Albanian guerrillas in Presevo.
The United Nations is “following developments in the Presevo valley and is appealing for calm”, said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson, Martin Nesirky.
“The UN has consistently underscored the need for international and regional reconciliation in the western Balkans,” he said.
Several thousand ethnic Albanians took to the streets of Presevo in southern Serbia for a protest rally on Monday after Belgrade sent around 200 masked police clad in riot gear into the town and removed the monument to the dead guerrillas with a bulldozer early Sunday morning.
The UN appealed to Serbia not to prevent further demonstrations.
“Peaceful protests should be allowed to go on,” Nesirky said.
The Belgrade government said the monument promoted ethnic separatism and had to go, but protesters saw its removal as discrimination against ethnic Albanians in an area that saw clashes between the guerrilla fighters and Serbian forces in 2000.
The Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac was seeking to unite this southern part of Serbia with Kosovo, but its fighters were disarmed in 2001 following an internationally-brokered peace deal.
The Presevo memorial, which was erected in November, commemorated 27 of its guerrillas who were killed during the insurgency.
Protesters in Presevo suggested that the dispute might affect the EU-led dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, but officials in Brussels said talks must go on.
“Now it is important for us that all sides return to dialogue and not cause further confrontations,” Maja Kocijancic, spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told Deutsche Welle.
“It is important to debate crucial issues for the south Serbia region; that is, the lack of employment, bad economy and minority rights,” Kocijancic said.
The British embassy in Belgrade, which mediated in attempts to resolve the monument row, said these negotiations should have been allowed to continue.
“It is regrettable that the government should have removed the monument unilaterally without engaging in further negotiations when a mutually acceptable resolution seemed close,” the UK embassy said in a statement.
“We call on all parties to show restraint and to avoid any actions or rhetoric which might further inflame tensions,” the embassy added.
Steven Stark, spokesperson for the US embassy, which was also involved in the mediation efforts, called on “all sides to continue to work with the OSCE in order to find a long-term solution for the dispute”.
Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha said on Monday that the monument’s demolition showed that ethnic Albanians in the Balkans must unite in one state.
“This act shows one more time that there is only one way, the unification of the Albanian nation, in order for Albanians to enjoy the freedom they earned by shedding blood,” he said.
He claimed that Belgrade’s move was motivated by deep-rooted ethnic hatred.
“The Albanian government will re-examine its relationship with Serbia and I guarantee the citizens of Presevo that we will do everything possible in international institutions,” he said.
The south Serbia region has been always perceived as troubled by the Belgrade authorities because of its close ties with Kosovo.
In a local referendum in 1992, the vast majority of ethnic Albanians voted for territorial autonomy and the opportunity to join Kosovo, although the vote wasn’t recognised as valid by Belgrade or the international community.
The biggest challenge for the area remains local ethnic Albanians’ lack of trust in Serbian institutions. Most of them view Pristina as their de facto capital, not Belgrade.