Serb police crush protest in Kosovo

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The Independent Online
SERBIAN police charged into crowds of protesting Albanians in the capital of the southern province of Kosovo yesterday, knocking down scores of people with heavy clubs and water cannon in a brutal follow- up to a spate of killings over the weekend.

Despite international appeals for calm, the Serbian authorities appeared determined to silence by force all dissent in the Albanian-majority province. The offices of the Albanian-language newspaper Koha Ditore were raided and its editor, the respected Albanian rights campaigner Vetan Suroi, was beaten up. Unconfirmed reports suggested there had also been exchanges of gunfire.

Yesterday's demonstration in Pristina, attended by tens of thousands of people, followed a weekend of police searches and armed confrontations across the province, particularly the Drenica region, in which at least 16 Albanians and four Serb policemen were shot dead. The past few days have seen some of the most serious unrest since the Serbian authorities stripped Kosovo of its autonomous status in 1989, raising fears in the international community of an open armed conflict in which the Albanians, despite their overwhelmingly superior numbers, are sure to be the big losers.

Kosovo was the issue on which the present Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, built his career - removing autonomy for the Albanians as a way of stirring up Serbian nationalism, as the province is home to some of the most holy sites of the Serbian Orthodox Church. It has remained an excuse to deflect attention from Mr Milosevic's political failings in Serbia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia, particularly since the emergence of a new armed element in the Albanian opposition known as the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The KLA began openly claiming responsibility for the killing of Serbian policemen and Albanian "collaborators" last November, after months of dark rumours and conspiracy theories. Its actions have not only radicalised the conflict with the Serbs, but have poisoned political debate among the Albanians whose leadership has traditionally pursued a policy of non- violence.

Since the end of the war in Bosnia, Western governments have been trying to use the threat of continuing sanctions against Serbia as a lever with which to exact concessions on Kosovo and a return to some kind of autonomy. But the paradox is that Mr Milosevic and his cronies cannot afford to cede ground since Kosovo is one of the only cards they have to play to avoid political annihilation.

The Albanians, meanwhile, are trapped in a paradox of their own. Kosovo can have no future as an autonomous province without fruitful dialogue with Belgrade - for economic as well as political reasons. But no leader in the current climate is going to advocate dialogue.

Indeed, for the past six years the Albanians have been developing a parallel power structure, organising their own schools and hospitals and pretending that the Serbs - including a 45,000-strong police force - are not there at all.