By Linda Karadaku and Ivana Jovanovic
Serbs in northern Kosovo have been setting up and manning barricades since July. Belgrade claims those manning the barricades are just locals, not criminals or Belgrade supporters, while Pristina says criminal groups control the area with Belgrade’s support.
Kosovo Interior Minister Bajram Rexhepi says that based on an investigation by Kosovo police and EULEX, about 40 arrest warrants were issued, including charges of burning border crossings and the July murder of Kosovo police officer.
“Due to the barricades [in the north] it is difficult to make arrests; they move around from time to time, in Serbia or Montenegro,” Rexhepi told SETimes. He confirmed the international arrest warrants are under way, issued via Interpol, EULEX and UNMIK.
“Different criminal groups are related to smuggling, crimes, murder, torching and other [criminal] acts,” Rexhepi told SETimes.
Zvonko Veselinovic reappears as the main crime group leader, according to Kosovo and Serb media reports. Veselinovic, however, claims he just runs a construction company.
“Charges that I am leading the Serbs from the north [have been] going on for a long time, but I do not know what they are [based] on. I am with my people, but far from the idea of leading them,” he told SETimes.
Veselinovic, however, admits being at the Jarinje border crossing when the clashes with KFOR took place.
“Yes, I was there with 2,000 people. I was not wearing a mask, as they claim. I had on a plain shirt and cap. After all, KFOR records everything, and on that day, I personally saw soldiers with cameras, so it is very easy to determine where I was, with whom, and what I was doing,” he adds.
“Zvonko is a smuggler; he is also a suspected organiser of the barricades and the burning of the border crossing. Zvonko is one of them; there are others, some Serbs in the Serb national council. Unfortunately, the leaders of the illegal municipalities have also joined in; some are suspected of crime connection,” Rexhepi told SETimes.
Aleksandar Cortic, Serbian MP and member of the Security Committee, describes Veselinovic as a controversial businessman.
“He is protected in all these circles so he looks for his own interests and is not alone, and this is the way people like him are getting rich and gain millions, while others are suffering,” Cortic told SETimes.
He says meetings on northern Kosovo will remain secret at the insistence of intelligence services.
“The Serbian government should appeal for barricade withdrawal to all who insist on them. Our government needs to call [on] our people to stop fighting and resume talks with Pristina,” says Cortic.
“We do not see borders [Jarinje and Brnjak] as border crossings between Serbia and Serbia, but as crossings between Serbia and Kosovo. We, therefore, appeal to the Serbian population not to be [held] hostage by locals who turned the entire Kosovo north into a crime zone,” he adds.
Rexhepi says the criminal groups in the north are “strong in controlling the common people, who are victims, hostages of criminal groups,” and, he adds, have support from Serbia.
EULEX confirms the existence of criminal groups and organised crime in the north.
“They co-operate with criminal groups in the south,” Nick Hawton, head of the EULEX Press Office, told SETimes.
“The current situation with the barricades in the north restricts the freedom of movement of everyone — including law enforcements agencies; which is another reason why these barricades should come down as soon as possible,” he adds.
Kosovo analyst Agron Bajrami says it is time to decide how and who will “close the serious wound of northern Kosovo”.
Afrim Gashi, an Albanian from Pristina, says the criminal groups in the north are related to political circles in Belgrade.
“Politics in Belgrade is presenting this criminal act to Serbian people as patriotism, trying to profit politically and possibly manage to divide the north,” he told SETimes.
Former Serbian politician Vuk Draskovic publicly said that Serb extremists provoked KFOR in the north in recent clashes.
Cortic agrees. “We have a situation in which people in Kosovo are close to experiencing the fate of Krajina Serbs, who came to Serbia only with plastic bags. We want to prevent it, not to repeat the Operation Storm.”