Cabinet behind "masks" to destabilize Kosovo

A top Kosovo Albanian opposition leader Friday accused the government of "putting masked men" on the roads in order to destabilize the province and score political points. "I expressed concern over the present security situation," the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) chief Hashim Thaqi said after meeting the UN administrator in Kosovo, Joachim Ruecker.

"The government policy (is) to destabilize by organizing and putting masks back into function," he said, referring to masked and armed men who emerged at illegal checkpoints in recent days.

Thaqi - himself a leader in the now disbanded Kosovo Albanian rebel army UCK that fought Serbia in 1998 and 1999 - said that he demanded that UN and the NATO-lead peacekeepers crack down "without mercy" on "provocateurs."

"I can confirm that police are taking this very seriously," Ruecker told reporters in Pristina after the meeting. Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku, a military man by vocation and the wartime commander of UCK, flatly dismissed the allegations.

With Kosovo already tense ahead of decisions which would determine its future status in the coming few months, the unease grew by a notch with the emergence of checkpoints.

No incidents other than sightings were reported yet, but police, who said that the armed people were members AKSh, an ultra-militant remnant-splinter of the UCK, increased patrols in the area.

"We've raised the security level and increased the police presence in the area," a Kosovo Police Service officer in Djakovica, Sofije Kozniku, told the Koha Ditore daily.

AKSh is believed to have remained underground since 1999, when UCK was disbanded and transformed into the unarmed, disaster-relief Kosovo Protection Corps - which Ceku commanded from start until he resigned to take over the cabinet last March.

Albanians, a vastly dominant majority in Kosovo, have launched an insurgency against Serbia in 1998. Skirmishes escalated into a brutal war, which eventually drew NATO in an 78-day bombing intervention against Yugoslavia the following year.

Serbia was then effectively ousted from Kosovo in mid 1999, as a UN administration and a NATO-led peacekeeping force assumed a protectorate over the province.

Kosovo has since been in international limbo - formally under Serbia's sovereignty, but under the rule of Albanians who remain extremely hostile to Serbia.

Now, after 10 months of talks with Belgrade which brought no progress toward a compromise solution, the Albanians are becoming impatient to gain independence.

With the UN mediator in the talks, Martti Ahtisaari, due to announce his proposal for the resolution of Kosovo's status after the January 21 parliamentary elections in Serbia, tensions are again raised in the province.

The appearance of armed, uniformed men has been the sign of the times - and at least a warning - in the wider area, mostly populated by ethnic Albanians, as in Presevo Valley in southern Serbia and north-western Macedonia, both bordering Kosovo.

In Macedonia, which tottered on the verge of an all-out ethnic war in 2001, the rebels last reappeared ahead of a November 2004 referendum which unsuccessfully challenged the reforms which ended the conflict three years before that.

There is concern in Pristina and Belgrade, that the status issue could induce violence targeting the minority Serbs, who mostly live under protection in enclaves. Albanian leaders already appealed for restraint in the coming period, "crucial for the future of Kosovo."

Belgrade, insisting on sovereignty and offering only a broad autonomy to Albanians, says that Serbs would flee if Kosovo gains independence.

The UN administrator, Joachim Ruecker, however said that there would be "no Serb exodus" from the province regardless of what the future status turns out to be.

[Source: German Press Agency DPA, Pristina, 08Dec06]

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