Political violence in run-up to Kosovo vote

Recently, Albanians have escalated politically motivated attacks against their own.

Sejdi Koci, the silver-haired principal of a village grade school, was driving home earlier this month when automatic gunfire exploded from the side of the road, shattering the windows of his brown Citroen.

"There's not much to describe," he says, sitting on the edge of his hospital bed in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, his neck wrapped in bandages. "I heard shooting.... I put my hand to my throat and drove up the road."

The attack was not without warning. Mr. Koci is the local president of an Albanian opposition party, and he and his associates say they receive frequent threats. On the same evening about 30 miles away near the town of Podujevo, another political activist, Agim Valiu, also was shot and wounded.

While media attention has focused largely on violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo, UN police reports show most violence is committed by Albanians against other Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the population. Most of it is ordinary crime - grabs for property or money, turf wars, domestic disputes, the settling of old grudges. Yet Western officials and UN police believe that a small but significant part is politically motivated. And they expect such incidents to become more frequent in the runup to elections set for late October.

The attacks and intimidation threaten to mar what Western officials hope will be the next big step toward democratic self-rule in Kosovo, the southern province of Serbia that has been under NATO and United Nations control since June 1999.

"There's a long history of Albanian political violence," says William Hayden, an official of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who works in central Kosovo. "It can get nasty."

Political activists have been shot at and killed. They have been kidnapped and beaten. They have had grenades tossed into their yards. Their cars have been set on fire. More frequently, officials believe, they have been threatened and intimidated.

The extent of the problem remains hidden from outsiders. But some murders and attempted murders have led to suspicions of political assassination.

In May, Ekrem Rexha, a prominent former commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian rebel force that fought Serb rule, was gunned down outside his home in the southern city of Prizren. Mr. Rexha had been working closely with UN officials and had shunned the extreme nationalism of other former KLA leaders.

In late July, a bomb exploded in the yard of an activist near Dragash, in southern Kosovo; he decided to give up politics. Last week, at least two activists in different parts of Kosovo were shot at in their homes.

Officials say most incidents have targeted members of the Democratic League of Kosovo, the main ethnic Albanian party in Kosovo since 1989. The LDK, as it is known, is the party of Ibrahim Rugova, a scholar whose pacifist principles guided Albanian resistance to Serb rule in Kosovo until the KLA took up arms in 1998. The party remains popular and has an extensive network of supporters.

Former fighters suspected

UN police suspect that much of the violence and intimidation has come from former KLA members, especially those allied with Hashim Thaci, the former KLA leader and head of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, one of the KLA's political offshoots.

In one recent incident, the shop of an LDK activist in Mr. Thaci's home village was sprayed with automatic gunfire - the second such attack since November.

Thaci's party potentially has much to lose in the elections, which are for municipal offices only. After Serb forces withdrew last year, the KLA occupied town halls and public institutions across Kosovo and set up its own provincial government.

Although the UN has gradually asserted its own authority and placed representatives of other political groups in local governments, in places like Srbica ex-KLA members affiliated with Thaci's party still exercise virtual complete control.

"These guys are not going to give up power that easily," says Dardan Gashi, a political analyst with the International Crisis Group, a US-based research organization with an office in Pristina.

UN police also suspect organized crime is involved in some of the violence. They say that criminal groups engaged in racketeering, smuggling, and prostitution rely on close links to some people in power. The prospect of losing these connections - and the income they generate - may make them ill-disposed toward the LDK.

Officials say the problem is the worst in the Drenica region of Kosovo, the KLA's heartland and a stronghold of Thaci's party. Srbica, where Koci is the local LDK president, is one of the main towns in Drenica.

Local LDK vice president Fadil Gecaj says threats and attacks have prevented local activists from opening party offices. "Someone tells my friends to get away from me, otherwise they will be threatened, too," he says. "We are working quietly," he adds.

But the leader of the Democratic Party in Srbica, Ramadan Gashi, denies that its supporters engage in political violence. "These are lies and propaganda," he says. "We don't need to threaten any other parties."

Privately, international officials and UN police say some of the violence can be traced to officials high in Thaci's party, which has already disaffected many Kosovars for what they perceive as arrogant and thuggish behavior. "There are direct links right down," says a member of the UN police force, who asked not to be identified.

Some members of the Kosovo Protection Corps, set up by NATO to respond to civil emergencies and help with reconstruction, have been implicated in attacks. The organization, known as the TMK, is largely made up of former KLA fighters. "It's very clear that the TMK is totally behind Thaci and is involved in intimidation," says Mr. Gashi of the International Crisis Group.

More peacekeepers wanted

The NATO-led peacekeeping force has asked for 2,000 reinforcements for the campaign season. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is organizing the vote, says it will tolerate no political violence. But few people believe that either the peacekeepers or UN police can stop it.

"There are a lot of elements who are spoiling for a fight," says a senior official in the UN administration. "I haven't seen anything in how we deal with ethnic violence that shows we have the tools to address it. That does not bode well."

For his part, Koci declines to speculate about his attackers. But he is emphatic that he will not give up his political activities.

"It doesn't matter about myself," he says. "I care about the future. And these events are destroying the future of Kosovo."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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