PRESEVO, Serbia (Reuters) - Thousands of ethnic Albanians protested in Serbia on Monday against the removal of a memorial to fallen guerrilla fighters and dozens of Serb graves in neighboring Kosovo were damaged in apparent retaliation.
The monument in the town of Presevo was removed on Sunday by 200 masked Serbian police officers backed by armored personnel carriers. It bore the names of 27 ethnic Albanian guerrillas killed during a 2000 insurgency in the Presevo Valley, a spillover from the 1999 war in Kosovo, Serbia’s former province.
Albania and Kosovo, which has an ethnic-Albanian majority, condemned the decision to remove the memorial, erected by the ethnic Albanian-dominated local council. Serbia, a candidate to join the European Union, said it would not be “humiliated”.
In Presevo, one of Serbia’s poorest regions bordering Kosovo and Macedonia, a Reuters cameraman saw about 2,000 protesters waving Albanian flags and banners reading: “Stop discrimination” and “Europe, open your eyes”.
“The government says these men were terrorists, but people see them as heroes who defended their homes,” said Riza Halimi, a ethnic-Albanian parliamentary deputy.
The Presevo Valley conflict followed a Serbian counter-insurgency war in Kosovo, which ended in 78 days of NATO air strikes in 1999 to wrest control of the province from Belgrade.
Albanians in the Presevo Valley fought to unite with Kosovo, but laid down their arms under a NATO-brokered peace deal. Serbia pledged greater rights and economic opportunity for the impoverished south, but progress has been patchy.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but is not recognized by Serbia.
Kosovo warned removal of the memorial could undermine EU-mediated talks between it and Serbia aimed at normalizing relations. The talks are key to Serbia’s bid to join the EU.
On Monday, authorities in Kosovo said about 60 gravestones had been demolished at Serb cemeteries in the western town of Prizren and eastern village of Klokot.
Police said shots were fired at a memorial to Serbs killed during the 1998-99 war in the western enclave of Gorazdevac and that a monument to World War Two communist fighters had been destroyed in the eastern town of Vitina.
Police stepped up security around Serb Orthodox cemeteries.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which had been mediating to find a compromise on the memorial, said the decision to remove it had “undercut” the negotiations and appealed for calm.
Albania issued a statement saying the memorial was erected to honor “heroes of the Albanian nation” who had fought against late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic, ousted in October 2000.
“The racist, anti-Albanian legacy of Slobodan Milosevic is alive and dominates the official policy of Belgrade,” it said.
Serbia’s Prime Minister Ivica Dacic told reporters: “We are determined not to violate anybody’s human, national and civic rights, but no one has the right to humiliate Serbia.”
Reporting by Reuters Television in Presevo, Aleksandar Vasovic and Matt Robinson in Belgrade, Fatos Bytyci in Pristina and Benet Koleka in Tirana; Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Matt Robinson and Janet Lawrence