It barely rates a headline these days, but things are sure looking good in the long aftermath of another US military adventure, eh? From the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, Feb. 12:
Hundreds gathered on Sunday, February 11, in the centre of Pristina to mourn the victims of the previous day’s demonstration against the UN peace plan that turned violent and ended in fatalities. Two people died and more than 80 were injured in clashes with the police.
Most of those who returned on Sunday lit candles in memory of the dead men, named as Arben Xheladini, 34, and Man Balaj, 30.
Some wept, not only from sorrow but as a result of the residue of the rounds of tear gas that police fired into the city’s principal Mother Theresa street.
Fatmir Rexhepi, Kosovo’s interior minister, condemned the protest on Saturday, saying the security situation in Kosovo had “worsened as a result”.
About 3,000 people responded to the call of a nationalist organisation called Vetevendosje (self-determination), to protest against the UN proposal on Kosovo’s final status.
They are angered by the terms of the deal, which they say offers too many concessions to the Serbian minority and to the government in Belgrade. Serbia strongly opposes independence for Kosovo, claiming it as an integral part of its own territory.
The Kosovo Police Service, KPS, supported by the Special Police Unit of the UN mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, used tear gas and rubber bullets when the protesters tried to break through police lines.
Albin Kurti, Vetevendosje’s leader, who was arrested later that day, claimed the protest had been non-violent in nature and condemned the police intervention as brutal and politically motivated.
The police have responded that they are obliged to protect public property and government buildings from potential assault.
Protests organised by Vetevendosje have turned violent before, although not on this scale. The last rally, on November 28, 2006, resulted in light damage to government buildings after protesters pelted windows with stones.
“We considered that the [government’s] property was endangered by the protesters and we took the necessary measures,” said Veton Elshani, the KPS spokesperson.
Behxhet Shala, of a local civil rights group, the Council for Defence of Human Rights and Freedom, described the police action as a “severe violation of human rights”.
“I have never seen such an amount of tear gas. Despite the fact that there was no violence from the protesters, the police was quite prepared to be violent,” he said.
The protest began peacefully on Saturday with marchers moving off from Vetevendosje’s headquarters towards the government and parliament buildings. Placards attacked the proposal for Kosovo drawn up by the UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari and the Kosovo negotiating team.
Other groups joined the core of protesters, including members of missing persons organisations, war veterans groups and people who wanted to protest against corruption.
Just before they reached government buildings, police stopped the crowd who stood there for several minutes, listening to speeches from the organisers. The clash began after Albin Kurti urged the crowd to continue the march to the parliament and government building despite the police blockade.
Police then opened fire with rounds of teargas and rubber bullets for about one hour, despite the fact that most of the protesters quickly ran away.
Dugagjin Gorani, a local political analyst who took part in the protest, said the police “started shooting at us indiscriminately; I felt like they made a terrorist out of all of us”.
But KPS spokesperson Elshani was unrepentant. “We had information that the protestors are going to be very radical and we have evidence that they threw two Molotov cocktails at the police,” he said.
The authorities were clearly taking no chances. Special police units from Romania, Ukraine, Poland and Italy deployed in support of KPS colleagues who are not equipped with rubber bullets. The two men died from rubber bullets hitting their faces and necks.
Kosovo’s political leaders expressed their condolences to their the families. Both the protest and its aftermath have divided the community. “They shouldn’t start protesting at all,” said one woman who watched the events from her balcony.
The Kosovo negotiating team also condemned the marchers. “The violent protest stimulated by Albin Kurti and Vetevendosje… is against Kosovo’s stability and general interests,” they said on Sunday.
But Alban Bokshi, a civil society activist, said the police strategy had been counterproductive. “In such situations the police should use a defensive strategy but instead they used an offensive one,” he said. “They fired over 200 rounds of gas in one hour.”
Dugagjin Gorani said such types of policing would only recruit more people to Vetevendosje. “I went just to see what would happen and came home ‘self-determined’,” he said.
Arben Xheladini will be buried at 16:00 on Monday, February 12, in Pristina cemetery and Man Balaj the next day.