Unrest in Kosovo

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Violent unrest in Kosovo (a United Nations-administrated province of Serbia officially called Kosovo and Metohija) broke out on March 17, 2004. Serbian communities and cultural sites were attacked, leading to the worst loss of life and destruction of property since the 1999 Kosovo War. The violence was subsequently blamed by the UN on Albanian extremists. (BBC) (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/3553837.stm)

Contents

Events in Kosovo

Ethnic tensions have been a major problem in Kosovo for many years and sparked the 1999 Kosovo War. Since the end of the war, the province has been administered by the UN under the auspices of UNMIK, with security provided by the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR).

Between 150,000-250,000 Serbs and Roma fled the province in the immediate aftermath of the war. [1] (http://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/kosov2)[2] (http://www.serbia.sr.gov.yu/coordination_centre). Those that remained organized themselves into enclaves guarded by peacekeeping forces. Low-level violence continued after the war, with 2000 non-Albanians and Albanian moderates being murdered or kidnapped, presumably by Albanian extremists. Non-Albanian minorities in Kosovo were subjected to "persistent intimidation and harassment" (in the words of Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org)), though the level of violence is reported to have declined somewhat since the end of the war. There have also been repeated attacks on Serbian Orthodox churches, shrines and other cultural monuments, with over a hundred being destroyed or damaged. Clashes have also broken out between Serbs and Albanians in the largely Serb-inhabited north of Kosovo, with Albanians claiming to be harassed by Serbs who have been chased out of their homes and taken refuge north of the Ibar River.

The latest unrest began on March 15 with the drive-by shooting of an 18-year-old Serb, Jovica Ivić, in the village of Čaglavica in the central region of Kosovo. Local Serbs from the village staged demonstrations and blocked traffic in protest at the shooting.

On March 16, three Albanian children drowned in the Ibar River in the village of Čabar, near the Serb community of Zubin Potok. A fourth boy survived. It was alleged that he and his friends had been chased into the river by Serbs, presumably in revenge for the shooting of Ivić the previous day. The truth of this allegation is unclear and is being investigated by local police; according to a United Nations spokesman, the surviving child denied it. (B92 (http://www.b92.net/english/news/index.php?&nav_category=&nav_id=27522&order=priority&style=headlines))

The following day thousands of Kosovo Albanians, protesting against the boys' deaths, gathered at the south end of the bridge across the Ibar at Kosovska Mitrovica, which divides the Serbian and Albanian districts of the town. A large crowd of Serbs gathered at the north end to prevent the Albanians from crossing. Peacekeepers from the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) blockaded the bridge, using tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades to keep the crowds apart. However, gunmen on both sides opened fire with submachine guns and grenades, killing at least eight people (six Albanians and two Serbs) and wounding over 300. Eleven peacekeepers were also injured, two seriously.

The violence continued on March 18 with further demonstrations in many localities across Kosovo, notably at Čaglavica again and also in Kosovska Mitrovica, Lipljan, Obilic and Pristina. The casualty toll at the end of the day was stated to be at least 31 dead and 600 injured. (BBC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/3525168.stm))

Reports on March 19 lowered the death toll from 31 to 28 and also counted 600 injured including 61 peacekeepers and 55 police officers.[3] (http://news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/cpress/20040319/ca_pr_on_wo/kosovo_clashes_14) U.N. spokeswoman Isabella Karlowitz said 110 houses and 16 churches were destroyed. She also reported that around 3,600 people had been made homeless by the violence, mostly Serbs but also Roma and Ashkali. (Reuters) (http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=worldNews&storyID=4612052)

Attacks on Kosovo Serbs

The violence quickly spread to other parts of Kosovo, with Kosovo Serb communities and religious and cultural symbols attacked by crowds of Albanians. These included:

  • Belo Polje - Serb returnees attacked
  • Čaglavica - Serb houses set on fire;
  • Kosovo Polje - Serb houses and a hospital set on fire;
  • Lipljan - gunfights between KFor and Albanians, four Serbs killed, remaining Serbs took refugee in Orthodox Church which was attacked;
  • Peć - rioting in which UN offices were attacked; one Albanian killed by UN police.
  • Priština - all remaining Serbs evacuated or forced out
  • Gnjilane - all remaining Serbs evacuated or forced out
  • Cernica, Serb village near Gnjilane - three Serbs wounded
  • Svinjare, Serb village near Kosovska Mitrovica - burnt houses
  • Obilic - Serb houses burnt, all Serbs chased out
  • Vitina - Attack on church prevented by Greek KFor troops, Orthodox priest injured
  • Drajkovce, village near Štrpce - two Serbs killed

In a statement on March 18, the Serbian Orthodox Church reported that a number of its churches and shrines in Kosovo had been damaged or destroyed by rioters. These included:

Prizren:
Peć:
  • Church of St. John the Baptist (Svetog Jovana Preteče i Krstitelja) set on fire March 17 in Pećka Banja village
  • Belo Polje village church of St. Nicholas, 19th century
Djakovica: Church of Our Lord's Ascension (Uspenja Gospodnjeg), 19th century, torched along with the parochial residence on March 17. Reports of Albanians clearing the ruins of the Church of the Holy Trinity, destroyed in 1999
Uroševac: Church of St. Tzar Uroš
Kosovo Polje:
Gnjilane: Church of St. Nicholas, 1861
Pristina: Church of St. Nicholas, 19th century, damaged and sacked
Vucitrn: Church of St. Elijah, burned down
Southern Kosovska Mitrovica: Church of Saint Sava set afire in the morning of March 18, adjoining Orthodox cemetery desecrated
Srbica: Devič Monastery, nuns evacuated by Danish soldiers, monastery pillaged and torched
?timlje: Church of St. Archangel Michael set on fire on March 19
Orahovac: Bela Crkva and Brnjak village churches burnt
Vitina: Two destroyed churches, in town and in village of Donja Slapa?nica
Obilić: Church set afire


Some of these locations were ostensibly under the protection of KFOR at the time.

Attacks on UN personnel

In an apparent attempt to blame Serbs, Albanians sprayed a UN police patrol with fire in Podujevo, killing two policemen, one of whom was from Ghana and the other a local Albanian. Although the shooters were said to be shouting in Serbian, they were later heard speaking instinctively in Albanian when shot back and wounded by the policemen. KFOR later raided an Albanian farm, made four arrests, found one of the culprit's bodies and the murder weapons. A tip off was the fact that Podujevo was no longer home to any Serbs following their expulsion by the Albanians in 1999. (Telegraph) (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/03/28/wkos28.xml&sSheet=/news/2004/03/28/ixnewstop.html)

Serbian reaction

The events in Kosovo brought an immediate angry reaction on the streets of Serbia. On the evening of March 17, crowds gathered in Belgrade, Novi Sad and Nis to demonstrate against the treatment of the Kosovo Serbs. Despite appeals for calm by Metropolitan Amfilohije of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the 17th century Bajrakli mosque was attacked and set on fire. Another mosque in the southern city of Nis was also attacked. Both buildings were extensively damaged but were saved from complete destruction by the intervention of police and firefighters. (F18 News (http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=280))

The Serbian government publicly denounced the violence in Kosovo, but it has focussed criticism solely on the Albanian side. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica gave a speech blaming organised Albanian separatists: "The events in northern Kosovo-Metohija reveal the true nature of Albanian separatism, its violent and terrorist nature .. [The government will] do all it can to stop the terror in Kosovo". (BBC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/3523916.stm)) Kostunica strongly criticised the failure of NATO and the UN to prevent the violence, and called for a state of emergency to be imposed on Kosovo.

The Minister of Minority Rights of Serbia-Montenegro, Rasim Ljajić (Slavic Muslim) said "What is now happening in Kosovo confirms two things: that this is a collapse of the international mission, and a total defeat of the international community" (B92 (http://www.b92.net/english/news/index.php?nav_id=27578&style=headlines))

Nebojsa Covic, the Serbian government's chief negotiator on matters relating to Kosovo, was sent to Kosovska Mitrovica on March 18 in a bid to calm the situation there. Serbian security forces also guarded the internal border between Serbia proper and Kosovo in a bid to prevent demonstrators and paramilitaries from entering the province to foment further unrest.

International reaction

The international community was taken by surprise by the sudden upsurge in violence. Kosovo had been fairly quiet since the end of 1999, although there had been occasional small-scale ethnic clashes throughout the past five years and an ongoing tension between Serbs and Albanians. This had, however, largely gone unnoticed by the Western media since 1999.

KFOR troops closed Kosovo's borders with the remainder of Serbia-Montenegro and the UN suspended flights in and out of the province. NATO announced on March 18 that it would send another 1,000 troops - 750 of them from the United Kingdom - to reinforce the 18,500 troops already there. (BBC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/3525168.stm)) (NATO (http://www.nato.int/shape/news/2004/03/i040318a.htm))

The United Nations and European Union both appealed for calm, calling on local leaders to restrain their supporters. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urged both sides to cooperate with the peacekeeping forces but pointedly reminded the Kosovo Albanians that they had a responsibility "to protect and promote the rights of all people within Kosovo, particularly its minorities".

An OSCE official in Austria called the events an orchestrated plan to drive out the remaining Serbs, while one anonymous UNMIK official reportedly referred to the event as Kosovo's Kristallnacht. The commander of NATO's South Flank, Admiral Gregory Johnson, said on March 19 that the violence verged on ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Albanians. (Reuters (http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=worldNews&storyID=4608697)) On March 20, Kosovo's UN administrator, Harri Holkeri, told journalists that "Maybe the very beginning was spontaneous but after the beginning certain extremist groups had an opportunity to orchestrate the situation and that is why we urgently are working to get those perpetrators into justice." (BBC) (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/3553837.stm)

According to Amnesty International, at least 19 people died -- 11 Albanians and eight Serbs -- and over 1,000 were injured while some 730 houses belonging to minorities, mostly Kosovo Serbs, as well as 36 Orthodox churches, monasteries and other religious and cultural sites were damaged or destroyed. In less than 48 hours, 4,100 minority community members were newly displaced, (more than the total of 3,664 that had returned throughout 2003), of whom 82 per cent were Serbs and the remaining 18 per cent included Roma and Ashkali as well as an estimated 350 Albanians from the Serb majority areas of N. Mitrovica/Mitrovice and Leposavic/Leposaviq.


Russia and Serbia-Montenegro called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, which condemned the violence. On March 19, the Russian Duma passed a resolution (397 to 0) calling for the return of Serbia-Montenegro's troops to the southern province. Russia condemned KFor and UNMIK's inabilities to stop the violence. (B92 (http://www.b92.net/english/news/index.php?order=priority))

The government of Albania has "come out strongly against the violent actions of the Albanian side" and is aiming to calm the violence, according to Holkeri (HS (http://www.helsinki-hs.net/news.asp?id=20040319IE7)).

Reactions by Kosovo Albanian politicians

Kosovo Albanian politicians such as President Ibrahim Rugova and Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi joined UN governor Harri Holkeri, NATO southern commander Gregory Johnson, and other KFOR officials in condemning the violence and appealing for peace in Kosovo (B92 (http://www.b92.net/english/news/index.php?&nav_category=&nav_id=27581&order=priority&style=headlines)).

Hashim Thaci, the former KLA leader, "rejected ethnic division of the southern Serbian province and said independence is a pre-condition for stability in the region." (VOA (http://www.voanews.com/article.cfm?objectID=90365518-CC41-47AF-AC1079ECA14915CA)). He has also said, "Kosovo, NATO and the West have not fought for Kosovo only for Albanians, nor for a Kosovo ruled by violence...Violence is not the way to solve problems, violence only creates problems" (B92 (http://www.b92.net/english/news/index.php?&nav_category=&nav_id=27621&order=priority&style=headlines)).

Since then, both leaders have strengthened calls for an independent Kosovo.


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