Serbs 'torture and kill' Kosovo Albanians: Rights organisation warns Serbia's persecution of a people could backfire

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The Independent Online
A HUMAN rights group accused the Serbian authorities yesterday of killing and torturing ethnic Albanians in the southern province of Kosovo. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), which monitors compliance with the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki accords, said in a report that Serbia's policies were responsible for rising tension that could erupt into open conflict.

'Every ethnic Albanian, including women and children, is a potential victim of police abuse. Groups such as journalists and former members of police as well as political and human rights activists seem to be chosen as special targets,' the IHF said.

'The methods of harassment range from verbal insults and meaningless identity checks in the street to arbitrary detention and torture or ill- treatment - not infrequently with fatal consequences, including death - and summary shootings of demonstrators or killing of unarmed individuals.'

Albanians make up about 90 per cent of the 2 million people in Kosovo, an area that Serbs and Albanians alike claim as the cradle of their civilisations. Tito, the late Yugoslav ruler, granted autonomy to Kosovo in 1974, angering Serbs and providing the nationalist issue that Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian ruler, used as the vehicle to win power after 1987.

Mr Milosevic has stripped Kosovo of its self-rule, sacked thousands of doctors, teachers, judges and policemen, restricted use of the Albanian language and encouraged Serbian emigration to the province in an effort to change its ethnic balance. The Albanians have reacted by proclaiming independence from Serbia and by setting up an underground state with its own health and education services and a voluntary taxation system.

After the Balkan wars broke out in June 1991, Western officials expressed fear that Kosovo's tensions might lead to a conflict dragging in Albania, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and possibly Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. Before handing over the US presidency to Bill Clinton last January, George Bush warned the Serbs that the West would not tolerate aggression in

Kosovo.

So far, the province has escaped serious violence, apparently because the Serbs recognise that a crackdown would provoke even harsher Western sanctions against them and because the Albanians recognise that an uprising could end in a bloodbath. Even so, at least two policemen have been killed and nine wounded since May in incidents linked with extremist Albanian bands. The IHF said it had received frequent reports that the Kosovo authorities had armed local Serbs at police stations, military barracks and even their homes.

'The region has been placed under virtual colonial control which has resulted in a total marginalisation of the Albanian majority in Kosovo. The entire province has been gradually Serbianised,' the report said. 'The IHF is deeply concerned that the Serbian oppressive policies carried out in Kosovo aim at a permanent change in the demographic structure of the region.'

The report estimated that at least 22,000 Albanian teachers, 1,800 hospital workers, 1,300 radio and television staff and 300 judges had lost their jobs since 1990. Tens of thousands of Albanians have left Kosovo or gone into hiding to avoid service in the Serbian army.

There is virtually no international presence in Kosovo now to observe the human rights scene. The Serbian-led rump Yugoslavia ordered monitors from the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) to leave Kosovo in July, and said they could not return unless Yugoslavia were allowed to rejoin the CSCE.

(Map omitted)

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