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Milosevic, Albanian furor stir unrest in simmering Kosovo

January 29, 1997 GMT

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ President Slobodan Milosevic may be trying to stir up trouble in the separatist southern province of Kosovo to distract people from 10 weeks of pro-democracy protests elsewhere in Serbia.

Milosevic came to power championing the rights of minority Serbs in Kosovo, promising he would help combat ethnic Albanian separatists. Now, each side says Milosevic is using the Kosovo tensions to draw attention away from the most serious challenge to his rule yet.

Leaders of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority _ 90 percent of the region’s 1.9 million people _ warn of serious trouble in the province, where nearly 200 people have died in ethnic conflict in the past decade. Adding to the tensions is unrest in neighboring Albania.

And now, for the first time, even Kosovo’s Serb leaders have come out against Milosevic, claiming he used them only to gain power. Last weekend, they branded him ``anti-democratic,″ stripped him of any right to negotiate their fate and declared support for the anti-Milosevic protesters.

This month, three ethnic Albanians loyal to the Serbs were killed in mysterious circumstances, and a car bombing seriously wounded a prominent Kosovo Serb.

Milosevic’s state-controlled media blame a mysterious Albanian terrorist organization _ the Kosovo Liberation Army. The group claimed responsibility, but Albanian leaders say it does not exist; they suggest Serbian police staged the violence to make Kosovo Albanians look bad.

This week, police arrested at least 16 ethnic Albanians on terrorism charges. Albanian leaders blamed Milosevic.

``There is no limit at which he would stop,″ said Azem Vllasi, a former Kosovo leader ousted and imprisoned by Milosevic in 1989.

Trouble in Kosovo in the past has led to trouble elsewhere is the Balkans. Demonstrations by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1981 were the first step in the collapse of the former Yugoslavia after the death of its Communist founder, Josip Broz Tito.

``Kosovo is the lightning rod of all the simmering tensions in the southern Balkans,″ said Mahmut Bakhalli, who led the Albanians before 1981. ``Things began here, and possibly could end here.″

In 1987, Milosevic rose to power by promising Kosovo’s minority Serbs he would help them fight ethnic Albanian dominance. The hilly, remote region was the center of Serbia’s medieval empire and is the touchstone of Serb national identity.

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Milosevic sent tanks to crush the ethnic Albanians’ autonomy bid in 1989. He then quashed democratic protest in Belgrade and went to war in Croatia and Bosnia on the side of the Serbs.

Despite sporadic killings, arrests, beatings and constant harassment by Serbian police, Kosovo’s Albanians have kept quiet, building their own institutions and living side-by-side with a Serb minority with which they barely interact.

The pro-democracy protests in Serbia have rattled that uneasy peace.

So far, Kosovo’s Albanians have not joined in opposition protests across Serbia. The Serbian opposition is adamant about keeping Kosovo part of Serbia, saying only that it would give the region a certain amount of autonomy. Kosovo’s Albanian leaders say that is unacceptable.

The Serbian opposition and the Kosovo Albanians agree only that Milosevic is ratcheting up tension to distract Serbs from the roiling protests in his capital of Belgrade and other cities.

``Milosevic is ready to provoke bloodshed in Serbia, or even war in Kosovo,″ Serbian opposition leader Vuk Draskovic told The Associated Press.

Contributing to the escalating tensions is trouble in neighboring Albania, where failed pyramid schemes have prompted days of protests and rioting across the impoverished nation.

In the slums of Pristina, ramshackle apartments have television satellite dishes pointed toward Albania.

Since it shook off 50 years of Stalinist isolation in 1990, Albania has supported its brothers in Kosovo, and bolstered their dreams of independence. Now, the crisis in Albania has destroyed a model for democratic institutions.

Young Kosovo Albanians are unhappy with the peaceful resistance their leaders espouse. It has neither ended nor eased seven years of repression.

Young hotheads are ``ready-made avengers,″ Vllasi said. ``Difficult days are ahead of us.″