- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2001

BUJANOVAC, Yugoslavia Western diplomats heap praise on the new Yugoslav government for its restraint in dealing with ethnic Albanian rebels, but here in the Presovo Valley one can still see the remnants of the "old Serbia" of former President Slobodan Milosevic.
Jakup Destani, a 70-year-old Albanian man, recounts being stopped at a Serbian police checkpoint last month while returning to his home in Lucane, a village controlled by rebels of the Liberation Army for Presovo, Medvedja and Bujanovac UCPMB in Albanian.
He said the police ripped his shirt while pulling him out of his beaten-up Volkswagen Golf. They ransacked the car, accused him of stealing it and held him for several hours at the Bujanovac police station.
It was only because he had personal contacts in the local police that he was released and given a promise of reimbursement for the damages to his car, he said.
"I can pay for the car, but it's the humiliation," he said in Lucane, where he stood before windows broken by Serbian small-arms fire and concrete walls pocked by grenade blasts.
Albanians say such incidents continue under the new government of President Vojislav Kostunica, which took power in October. Shaip Kamberi, the head of the Council for Human Rights in Bujanovac, said his office records about one incident of harassment every two days. The real number is probably much higher because police often intimidate Albanians from reporting incidents, Mr. Kamberi said.
After a NATO air campaign drove Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, Mr. Milosevic transferred many police from the province to southern Serbia. Mr. Kamberi said the harassment of Albanians surged at about that time.
Police with automatic rifles are now a common sight around Bujanovac and are received warmly by the Serbs here, many of whom are refugees from Kosovo. But the harassment has fueled support for the UCPMB.
The rebels, who number in the low thousands, formed in January when they began a campaign of lethal attacks on Serbian policemen. Clad in black uniforms and driving four-wheel-drive trucks some of them former Serbian police vehicles they operated freely until last week in the forested 3-mile-wide buffer zone created by NATO along Kosovo's eastern border
With NATO's approval, Yugoslav forces returned to the zone last week to deal with the rebels and to prevent them from using the zone as a rear base for armed attacks into Macedonia, where a new Balkan war is brewing.
Many observers believe that if the Serbian government can convince the Albanians in southern Serbia that it is willing to protect them, that will take the wind out of the sails of extremists in Macedonia and Kosovo.
Mr. Kamberi, like many Albanians and Western officials, credit Minister of Ethnic Minorities Rasim Ljajic and Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic, who heads the government team dealing with the crisis, for listening sincerely to Albanians' complaints.
But the government's promises are contradicted by continuing problems with the police, Mr. Kamberi said. He said either the government is deliberately misleading Albanians or the police are deliberately thwarting Mr. Covic's and Mr. Ljajic's efforts.
"I don't know, but the incidents are happening," he said.
The region's coffee-and cigarette-fueled news reporters also have complaints about the new administration, complaining that much of the information provided by the government-run press center in the Bujanovac City Hall turns out to be false or misleading.
But government spokeswoman Milena Kovacevic insisted the mere existence of a press center proved things had changed.
"We lost the media war under Milosevic and we lost Kosovo," she said. "So it's very important for us to let the press know what's happening."
She admitted the center tended to report every incident of UCPMB harassment against Serbs while ignoring some Serbian attacks on Albanians.
"That is a matter of the police and we don't get that kind of information," she said. "After Milosevic there are still some people who think the same way."


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