'Kosovo's Mandela' on hunger strike: Adem Demaci is among 14 ethnic Albanians protesting at growing Serbian oppression, Tony Barber reports

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The Independent Online
ADEM DEMACI, a prominent ethnic Albanian activist in the Serbian province of Kosovo, was on hunger strike for the ninth day yesterday in protest at a Serbian crackdown on the Albanian-language press. Mr Demaci, 57, spent 28 years in Communist Yugoslav jails for his efforts to promote Albanian rights. Many Kosovars see him as the Balkan Nelson Mandela.

Mr Demaci and 13 other Albanian writers and journalists began the protest on 24 May after Serbian authorities tried to close down Rilindja, the only Albanian-language press and publishing house in Kosovo. Doctors who examined them yesterday said they had been losing weight rapidly and their livers, kidneys and cardiovascular systems had suffered damage.

Pjeter Arbnori, the Speaker of parliament in neighbouring Albania, said: 'When dictatorships want to oppress a people, they first try to close their mouth. Writers, journalists, the press, radio and television are the mouth of a people. Now they have closed this mouth.'

In the past five years tensions have been acute in Kosovo, where about 90 per cent of the 2 million people are Albanians and almost 10 per cent are Serbs and their ethnic cousins, Montenegrins. Dozens of Albanians were killed in riots in 1989 and 1990 after Serbia stripped Kosovo of the self-rule that Tito gave the province in 1974.

Since then, despite a heavy Serbian police presence, Kosovars have set up underground activities with emphasis on Albanian-language education, cultural and medical facilities.

Mr Demaci, who in 1991 won the European Parliament's Andrei Sakharov Prize for human- rights work, used to be a passionate admirer of Enver Hoxha, the Stalinist dictator who ruled Albania from 1944 to 1985. However, he later moderated his views and even dropped his demand for the unification of Kosovo with Albania. He and other Kosovars are nevertheless determined to throw off Serbian rule.

The Albanians have been especially alarmed by the arrival in Kosovo of Zeljko Raznjatovic, a Serbian militia leader otherwise known as Arkan. At his offices in the Grand Hotel at Pristina, Kosovo's capital, he has a sign saying: 'Croats, dogs and Albanians not welcome.'

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