By Igor Jovanovic and Safet Kabashaj
Serbian authorities said on Friday (May 4th) they have arrested at least eight Albanians in a sweep of suspects accused of war crimes during clashes in Serbia in 2001, apparently in retaliation for the acquittals of Fatmir Limaj, an ally of Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, and three other former Kosovo Liberation Army members charged with committing war crimes against Serbs.
The arrests, in the southern Serbia municipality of Bujanovac, include five people accused of war crimes against civilians, two for resisting police and one for possession of an illegal weapon, Interior Minister Ivica Dacic said. They come two days before Serbia conducts nationwide elections.
The only Albanian member of the Serbian Parliament, Riza Halimi from Preseva Valley, said the arrests are an attempt to deteriorate a peaceful electoral process. He said that seven out of eight arrested are political activists with his Party for Democratic Action, and one is a candidate in local elections.
“Albanian discrimination here is permanent, and its dimension is leading to a kind of apartheid seen in South Africa,” Halimi told reporters.
The acquittals announced on Wednesday by a panel of two EULEX judges and a local judge in the Pristina District quickly became an issue on the campaign trail in Serbia, which is holding presidential, parliamentary and local elections on Sunday (May 6th).
During a campaign rally in Varanje on Thursday, Dacic called the EULEX ruling “shameful.”
“I wonder when someone will be convicted of war crimes against Serbs?” Dacic said. “When I arrest someone for war crimes, then the entire international community reacts. While I am at the head of police, I will arrest everyone who has committed a war crime. Since they did it [released Limaj] yesterday, they won’t wait long for my response.”
The Limaj case, considered the biggest war crimes trial in Kosovo, involved Limaj and 11 others who were arrested in March 2011 after they were accused of ordering and conducting torture in a Kosovo camp in 1999. Limaj is a former transport and telecommunications minister and an MP under Thaci’s Democratic Party (PDK).
The Serbian War Crimes Prosecution described the decision as “unjust and disgraceful, above all towards the victims seeking justice.”
A EULEX prosecutor from Kosovo’s Special Prosecution Office has announced that he is appealing the verdicts.
In March, the panel of judges in the case ruled that the statements and diaries of Agim Zogaj — who committed suicide in September 2011 — were inadmissible because the prosecution failed to meet procedural standards.
Tensions between the two countries are always strained, but were worsened when Serbia announced that its May 6th presidential, parliamentary and local elections would include parts of Kosovo. A subsequent compromise allowed Serbia to conduct its presidential and parliamentary elections in northern Kosovo, and NATO sent 700 troops last week in an attempt to maintain the peace.
“After the deployment of additional KFOR troops, there is less chance for eventual incidents or troubles, even I can’t completely [deny] that. But, in case there would be, certainly they will be at a lower intensity,” Serbian Secretary for Kosovo Oliver Ivanovic told SETimes.
Days before the elections, KFOR said there is no threat. “But our assessment is that there might be higher tensions and that’s why we made this enforcement,” Marc Stummler, KFOR spokesman, told SETimes. “We are ready to act and to support in any case if needed.”
Ambassador Werner Almhofer, the head of the OSCE in Kosovo, told reporters in Pristina that the mission was asked by various international and local leaders to facilitate the balloting in Sunday’s elections.
The OSCE’s role is to transport the balloting materials to and from Kosovo. According to Almhofer, the organisation will establish polling centres at 28 locations around the country.
Despite the plans, however, Kosovo authorities are sceptical that the elections process will be smooth.
“We trust the OSCE to organise elections, but we are not convinced that Serbia will respect this agreement,” Deputy Prime Minister Hajredin Kuqi told journalists in Pristina.
“These elections are do-or-die for us, because if the Serb institutions vanish, they will soon be replaced by Albanian ones,” Milan Ivanovic, the head of Serbian National Council of Northern Kosovo and Metohija, said.