Protest in southern town ends without incidents

BELGRADE, PREŠEVO -- A protest rally in Preševo that gathered ethnic Albanians from southern Serbia ended without incidents on Monday.

The rally in Preševo on Monday (B92)
The rally in Preševo on Monday (B92)

The rally was called after the Serbian authorities on Sunday removed a memorial placed at the town's center without a permit - and to honor members of the so-called Liberation Army of Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa (UCPMB; OVPMB).

Several thousand people today protested peacefully, while a group of NGOs and families of the OVPMB members killed in the 2000-2001 conflict gathered nearby separately.

Local Albanian leaders read their declaration during the main rally, while at the same time, the second gathering heard that "politicians were lying to the people".

The declaration was adopted by six ethnic Albanian parties who held a meeting ahead of the rally on Monday.

Our reporter in Preševo said that the separate rally saw the participants unfurl a banner reading, "Ten demands of the people", while a sister of one OVPMB member killed in clashes addressed those gathered to say that "everything the politicians have said was a lie", while the removal of the memorial "touched them directly". The woman also sent "a message of support for the OVPMB".

The now disbanded ethnic Albanian group was considered a terrorist organization for launching attacks against the security forces and civilians in southern Serbia.

Yesterday, local Albanian leaders were holding meetings that were described as "fairly stormy", when they accused the Serbian authorities of "missing a chance for reaching a compromise", and pledged to "continue to fight for their rights in a peaceful manner and with the help of the international community".

However, according to reports, some in the "political and intellectual circles" in Preševo believe that local politicians were "too soft toward Belgrade".

Speaking in Belgrade on Monday, PM Ivica Dačić said that the security situation in Preševo was stable, and that the events in the south were Serbia's "internal affair".

He also stated that Serbia was ready to continue its dialogue with Priština, and that the two issues were unrelated.

Earlier today, Dačić said that there was no need for local Albanians to protest, because the memorial was "removed, not destroyed, while everything went without any incidents".

Meanwhile in Kosovo - where a series of incidents targeted Serb holy places, cemeteries, and local administration buildings - the authorities warned that the EU-sponsored Kosovo talks "might be jeopardized" because of the removal of the monument.

The radical ethnic Albanian Self-Determination Movement party was reportedly "the only one" to call for peace and restraint, urging "the citizens of Kosovo to increase pressure on the government instead of engaging in acts of revanchism".

EC regrets lack of compromise

The European Commission (EC) on Monday said it regretted the failure to reach a compromise in the dispute over the Preševo memorial.

However, the EXC was "standing by its position that this was an internal matter of Serbia".

"The Commission continues to support OSCE's mediation efforts," said Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton.

She "urged both sides to return to dialogue, avoid conflict and establish trust, and turn to more important issues such as the social and economic development of southern Serbia and improving the position of minorities", Tanjug reported.