Serbian crackdown in Kosovo raises 'ethnic cleansing' fears

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A WAVE of arrests of Albanians in Serbia's restive province of Kosovo, following the expulsion of international human rights monitors, has raised Albanian fears that an ethnic cleansing campaign may be in the offing.

The Albanian-run Human Rights Committee in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, has reported more than 90 arrests, mainly of activists in the pro-independence party, the LDK, since Serbia expelled monitors from the Conference on Security and Co- operation in Europe (CSCE) from Kosovo at the end of July.

The committee says seven Albanians have been killed by police, either in jail or shot dead in the street. The Serbs retort that the police swoop has netted key plotters engaged in planning an armed uprising against Serbian rule in Kosovo. They named a detainee, Hazer Hazeraj, as 'defence minister' in the government of the self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo.

In a sign that the anti-Albanian drive has only just begun, Serbia has barred a visit to Kosovo by a team of monitors from Amnesty International.

'The goal is to intimidate Albanians and create panic with the intention of ethnically cleansing Kosovo and repopulating it with Serbs,' said a veteran Kosovo dissident, Adem Demaci. A human rights activist, Zenun Celaj, added: 'Since the CSCE has been forced to leave, the repression has become much heavier. The situation was not brilliant when they were here but at least Serbs were aware of their presence.'

Mr Celaj rubbished claims that Hazer Hazeraj was Kosovo's shadow defence chief. 'The Serbs need to have these trials to prove Albanians are terrorists and justify their own policy in Kosovo,' he said.

Ibrahim Rugova, president of the 'Kosovo Republic' said the Serbs were targeting his LDK party activists, in order to smash the parallel state which Albanians have set up in Kosovo.

Since Serbia stripped Kosovo of autonomy in 1989, Albanians have boycotted elections, state schools and hospitals, and pay voluntary taxes to their own illegal government.

'Since the CSCE left, villages have been surrounded and searched with brutality,' Mr Rugova said. He predicted forthcoming trials of Albanian activists would be used to justify swamping Kosovo with police and soldiers.

Ethnic tension between Kosovo's 1.7 million Albanians and the Serbian authorities who have ruled the province since 1912 has been severe for so long that it is not clear whether the new crackdown portends a real change in Belgrade's policy. Some local Albanians believe the arrests are a show of force by the police to convince Belgrade that they are cracking the whip. 'Whenever the world shows interest in Kosovo the Serbs arrange a show trial to show Albanians are terrorists,' said Ismet Hajdari, a journalist.

While Serbia is entangled in wars in Bosnia and Croatia, Belgrade seems unlikely to provoke a storm in Kosovo with Albanians, which would set back any moves to raise international sanctions against the rump Yugoslavia.

But in the meantime Serbia is tightening the screws. The combined army and police presence in Kosovo numbers 40,000. Soldiers and police control roadblocks outside the overcrowded Albanian townships. The local Serbs are heavily armed.

Ominously for the Albanians, the feared Serbian paramilitary leader, Zeljko Raznjatovic, also known as 'Arkan', who led death squads into Croatia and Bosnia, has declared that the Grand Hotel in Pristina is his new base.

An unofficial but rigorous system of apartheid ruthlessly excludes Albanians from jobs in the state sector. Government offices, police stations, state firms, hospitals and hotels are the exclusive preserve of Serbs.

GENEVA - Two United Nations aid convoys held up for four days by Bosnian Serbs headed back to the Croatian capital, Zagreb, yesterday, having failed to get through to the besieged enclaves of Maglaj and Tesanj in northern Bosnia, AFP