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Rocket Attack, Grenades and Gun Battle- Kosovo’s Latest “Isolated Incidents”

December 9, 2005

( Research Service)- “Regardless of some isolated incidents the security situation is stable,” said KFOR Spokesman Col. Pio Sabeta on 7 December. The colonel was speaking of an early morning grenade attack that day against a jewelry shop in the town of Viti, which caused “material damages” but no injuries, according to Radio-Television Kosova.

Four days earlier, armed assailants had launched a Saturday Night Special attack against a civilian bus connecting the southwestern towns of Dragas and Prizren. In an offensive that would seem right out of Iraq, the unknown attackers fired two rocket-propelled grenades at the bus. According to Serbia’s B-92, they “luckily did not explode, but passed right through the vehicle.” Kosovo Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi immediately condemned the assault, while UNMIK Chief Soren Jessen-Petersen spoke of a need to “enhance” security measures in Kosovo.Nevertheless, he effectively downplayed the significance of the attacks, like Col. Sabeta speaking of “isolated individuals or groups.” Even as their rule is increasingly threatened, the internationals in Kosovo are continuing to put on a brave face and pretend that the province is not headed for meltdown.

The most infamous previous attack against a bus in Kosovo was the shocking explosion near Podujevo on 16 February, 2001. This gruesome bombing, targeting elderly Serbs visiting a cemetery, was caused when the bus hit a remote-controlled bomb planted by Albanian extremists. Some 11 passengers were killed and another 40 injured, and the explosion ripped the bus to pieces.

According to the Sunday Times of London on 29 July, 2001, the bombing occurred because of a “simple mistake by British soldiers” combined with “a failure in basic communications.” The British and other UN colleagues had been aware for months, the report claimed, of the exact location Albanians were planning to conduct such an attack. But on 16 February, “a series of factors coincided to change the routine of the weekly convoy which carried civilians from Serbian enclaves within Kosovo across the border for shopping and family visits. A critical half-mile stretch of road, including two culverts beneath it, went unchecked by a British patrol.”

The aftermath of the bombing became more scandalous still when one of the accused, Florim Ejupi, managed to “escape” from the high-security US Camp Bondsteel in southern Kosovo. The British newspaper cited Detective Stu Kellock, former head of the United Nations Kosovo Mission’s regional serious crime squad who stated his disbelief at the escape story “a prisoner could not just walk away from Bondsteel. In my opinion he was taken elsewhere for questioning or something and I still do not understand why we, the police in the investigation who held jurisdiction, were not involved.” The newspaper concludes by citing unnamed UN officials. Allegedly, Ejupi “had been working for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). His trial would have been a serious embarrassment, they claim.”

However, according to Gazeta Shqiptare on 8 June 2004, the CIA “has offered a great assistance in finding Ejupi’s whereabouts. CIA agents were chasing him since the time of his escape from the military base “Bondsteel’ near Ferizaj.”

Indeed, Ejupi was later tracked down in Albania, though whether with or without their help is not stated. Ejupi, along with collaborators Faik Shaqiri and Xhevat Kosumi, were arrested in Tirana on 7 June 2004, and extradited to UNMIK in Kosovo.

Ejupi was also accused of involvement in an attack on international and KPS police on 23 March 2004 – one week after the massive riots targeting Serbs and UN personnel resulted in a province-wide clampdown. At a road checkpoint outside the Podujevo-area village of Skacovice, police were attacked by a group of men “wearing masks and military fatigues.” Two police officers were killed, and the getaway car was traced back to the home of Ejupi, where a large quantity of arms was found.

Almost a year later, on 7 April 2005, two indictments were filed with the District Court of Pristina against Ejupi, one for this case and another for the 2001 bus bombing. According to a statement from UNMIK Spokesperson Neeraj Singh, three accomplices were also indicted for murder over the 2004 gun battle- Shkumbin Mehmeti, Xhavit Kosumi and Faik Shaqiri.

The most recent bus attack on the Dragas-Prizren line is much different, and perhaps more ominous than its predecessors. Unlike the Podujevo bus bombing of 2001 and another about a year earlier, Saturday’s attack did not target Serbs or a Serb-populated area. Dragas lies in the southwestern tip of Kosovo, between the mountainous borders of Macedonia and Albania. Non-Albanians such as the Gorani, Slavic Muslims who had lived in the area for centuries, were forced to flee following the 1999 NATO bombing as they were considered to be Serb collaborators by local Albanians, often escaping to Macedonia. Some remained or have returned, however.

Yet the bombing motive does not seem to have been ethnic. Considering its location, anyone on the bus targeted by the RPGs would have most likely not been of Serbian background. Indeed, even though the bus had a final destination of Belgrade, it turns out that its passengers included “seven Kosovo Albanians, three Kosovo Bosniaks and one Kosovo Serb,” according to the UN.

With most of its minorities having been driven away and its priceless churches torched in the 2004 riots, Prizren too is now an Albanian stronghold. In a tragicomic scandal early last month, large parts of the roof of the medieval Serbian church of Bogorodica Ljeviska in Prizren were removed without anyone knowing– though the church was supposedly under official protection.

The new burst of extremism was likely meant to indirectly target the internationals, by challenging their authority with continual disruptions on a broad front. Indeed, over the past week or so shootings and other attacks have caused injury and death over a wide swathe of territory in Kosovo, including the central Serbian enclave of Gracanica, a village in northern Kosovo, and the capital Pristina.

This view was tacitly seconded by UNMIK Chief Jessen-Petersen in his statement, which claimed that “isolated individuals or groups who do not have Kosovo’s best interests in mind may attempt to disrupt Kosovo’s way forward for their own ulterior motives.”

The question now remains as to who these groups might be made up of or whose interests they might represent. With the jewelry shop bombing, the motive might have been of a sheer criminal nature; it is well known that businesses in Kosovo are often forced to pay protection money to organized crime groups. The recent attacks against Serbs throughout Kosovo are also more of the same ethnic cleansing that has been going on for years. But a rocket attack on an (at best mixed-ethnicity) bus in a remote area in the dead of night?

Another possibility was hinted at on 6 December, when British defense and security publication Jane’s claimed that “intra-Albanian power struggles have equal or greater potential to destabilise the province than violence directed at minorities or at the international community.”

The report suggested that top leaders of the Kosovo Albanian political parties are now vying for power with an eye to controlling the province as status approaches. These leaders maintain, according to the report, their own “hierarchical intelligence organisations with additional abilities to provide physical security to leaders and to enforce the parties’ will both on their members and their rivals, as well as to protect revenue streams.”

An early candidate for this thesis was a nighttime battle on Dec. 7 in Pristina which involved, approximately 20 gunmen, leaving two injured and one dead. According to the Kuwait News Agency, “a statement issued by the police, reported through the UN radio in Pristina today, said that the sound of explosions shook the capital last night. It added that several groups are involved in the clashes, estimated at 20 members, but the police refused to unveil their identities.”

As the time-honored “isolated incidents” continue to pick up in pace and intensity, it is bound to become more and more difficult to tell who is responsible for them. Deciphering the complex and manifold aims and operations of the men with clout in Kosovo has long vexed the UN police, and the inevitable politicization of any arrests they do make has hampered their efforts. In short, there is no reason to labor under the pretense that the situation will miraculously depart from its time-honored course. Taken cumulatively, the “isolated individuals or groups” the UNMIK boss speaks of have a terrific power to shape events in the province. And the trouble is, they know it.

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