Ethnic Albanians win power in south Serbia

Aug. 12, 2002 at 4:49 PM
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BELGRADE, Serbia, July 30 (UPI) -- Two ethnic Albanians and a Serb were elected mayors of three largest towns in southern Serbia's troubled Presevo Valley region where the Albanian majority had boycotted government-staged elections for more than ten years, according to unofficially results Monday.

The Valley, which lies along Kosovo's eastern boundary and also borders Macedonia in the south, was the scene of bitter fighting for more than half a year since November 2000 between Yugoslav and Serbian security forces and Albanian guerrillas of the self-styled Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja. The proclaimed aim of the LAPBM was to separated the Valley from Serbia and join it to Kosovo.

The guerrilla bases were inside the buffer zone around Kosovo from which security forces were barred under an agreement with the Kosovo peacekeeping force known as KFOR when it took control of Serbia's southern province in June 1999.

KFOR and NATO officials brokered a ceasefire between the Yugoslav government and the guerrillas and the fighting petered out by the middle of last year.

About 75,000 people of both Albanian and Serbian ethnic groups took part in the polls. Former guerrilla leaders encouraged the Albanians to turn out at the ballot box in a body after boycotting the election process since soon after Slobodan Milosevic came to power in Serbia in the late 1980s and his abolition of the Albanians' autonomy in Kosovo.

In Presevo, which is predominantly Albanian populated, 95 percent of the seats in the local assembly were won by the Albanian parties and Albanian Riza Hallimi was elected mayor, beating a rival from the same ethnic group.

Another Albanian, Nagib Arifi, becomes the mayor of Bujanovac where Albanian parties won 24 out of 38 seats in the town's assembly. The Serbian block which had previously held most of the seats, this time gained 13 seats.

Arifi promised "I'll be the mayor of all citizens, regardless of the national structure. All citizens will be treated the same before the law and the municipal administration."

In Medvedja, the Serbian stronghold in the Valley, Slobodan Draskovic, a Serb, won 80 percent of the votes cast and the Serbian block a similar share of the assembly seats.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which had more than 100 monitors at the elections welcomed them as conducted in harmony with OSCE commitments for democratic elections and Council of Europe standards.

OSCE sources quoted the organization's Chairman, Portuguese Foreign Minister Antonio Martins da Cruz, as describing the elections as "an important watershed and the latest stage in the overall process of confidence-building in which the OSCE has been actively engaged since the very start of its work in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia."

Da Cruz added, "Southern Serbia now has a historic chance to prove that co-existence is possible."

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