Category: Land of the Balkans


January 16, 2018

MITROVICA, Kosovo (AP) — A leading Serb politician in northern Kosovo was gunned down Tuesday morning, an attack that raised ethnic tensions in the Balkans and prompted the suspension of EU-mediated talks between Kosovo and Serbia.

Assailants opened fire on Oliver Ivanovic, 64, close to the offices of his political party in the Serb-controlled northern city of Mitrovica. He was taken to a hospital but doctors were unable to save him.

The doctors said Ivanovic had received at least five gunshot wounds to his upper torso. The assailants escaped in a car that was later found burned out. Kosovo police sealed off the area of the shooting and began a manhunt for the attackers.

Ivanovic was one of the key politicians in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo, a former Serbian province where tensions still remain high a decade after it declared independence in 2008. Serbia does not recognize that independence.

Ivanovic was considered a moderate who maintained relations with NATO and EU officials even after Serbia lost the control of its former province following NATO’s 1999 bombing to stop a deadly Serb crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists.

A Kosovo court convicted Ivanovic of war crimes during the 1998-99 war. That verdict was overturned and a retrial was underway. In Pristina, the Kosovo government strongly denounced the slaying, saying it considers the attack a challenge to “the rule of law and efforts to establish the rule of law in the whole of Kosovo territory.”

In Belgrade, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic held a top security meeting to discuss the shooting. Afterward, he called the killing “a terrorist act” and said Serbia is demanding that international missions in Kosovo include Serbia in their investigation into the slaying.

“Serbia will take all necessary steps so the killer or killers are found,” he said. At the news of Ivanovic’s slaying, the Serb delegation at the EU talks in Brussels immediately left to return to Belgrade.

Delegation leader Marko Djuric said “whoever is behind this attack … whether they are Serb, Albanian or any other criminals, they must be punished.” European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo to express the EU’s condemnation of the killing. She appealed for both sides “to show calm and restraint.”

The head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, Ambassador Jan Braathu, said he was “shocked and deeply saddened” and considered Ivanovic “among the most prominent Kosovo Serb representatives for almost two decades. ”

He also urged “all sides to avoid dangerous rhetoric and remain calm at this sensitive time, and recommit themselves to continue the work toward the normalization of relations and improvement of the lives of the citizens of Kosovo and Serbia.”

Dusan Stojanovic and Jovana Gec in Belgrade; Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania; and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.

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December 07, 2017

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The leaders of Greece and Turkey publicly aired their grievances Thursday in a tense news conference as a two-day visit to Athens by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan got off to a rocky start.

The Greek government had expressed hopes that the visit — the first to Greece by a Turkish president in 65 years — would help improve the often-frosty relations between the two neighbors. The NATO allies are divided by a series of decades-old issues, including territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea, and have come to the brink of war three times since the early 1970s.

But from the outset, the discussions focused on disagreements. On the eve of his visit, Erdogan rattled his Greek hosts by telling Greece’s Skai television that the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne should be “updated.” The treaty delineated modern Turkey’s borders and outlines the status of the Muslim minority in Greece and the Greek minority in Turkey, among other issues.

In a visibly testy first meeting with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, the two engaged in a thinly-veiled verbal spat over the treaty and Greece’s Muslim minority, which Erdogan is to visit Friday.

“This happened in Lausanne, that happened in Lausanne. I get that, but let’s now quickly do what is necessary,” Erdogan told Pavlopoulos. “Many things have changed in 94 years. If we review these, I believe that all the sides will agree that so many things have to (change.)”

The spat continued during Erdogan’s appearance at an unusually candid joint news conference with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. The two listed a series of grievances their countries have with each other, including religious and minority rights, the divided island of Cyprus and the case of ten Turkish servicemen who have applied for asylum in Greece following a Turkish government crackdown after a failed coup last year.

“It is very important to strengthen our channels of communication, and this can only happen on the basis of mutual respect,” Tsipras said. The prime minister said the two also discussed tensions in the Aegean Sea, where Greece complains Turkish fighter jets frequently violate its airspace.

“The increasing violations of Greek airspace in the Aegean and particularly the simulated dogfights in the Aegean pose a threat to our relations, and particularly a threat to our pilots,” Tsipras said.

For his part, Erdogan insisted once more that the Lausanne treaty needed to be reviewed, but stressed his country had no territorial claims on its smaller neighbor. On the topic of the Muslim minority in Greece — which the country recognizes only as a religious minority, while Turkey has long pressed for better rights — Tsipras said his government agreed that improvements must be made in their quality of life.

“But issues that concern reforms involving Greek citizens are not an issue of negotiation between countries,” he said. Tsipras noted it was unclear exactly what Erdogan was seeking with his call to update the 1923 treaty.

“The truth is I am a little confused about what he is putting on the table,” he said. Greeks have been aghast at Erdogan’s previous comments over possibly revising the Lausanne treaty, fearing that could harbor territorial claims.

Erdogan and Tsipras also sparred over Cyprus, a Mediterranean island divided since a 1974 Turkish invasion into a Turkish-occupied north and an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south. Another round of internationally-brokered peace talks to reunify the island failed earlier this year.

“Who left the table? Southern Cyprus did … we want the issue to reach a fair and lasting solution but that is not southern Cyprus’ concern,” Erdogan said. Tsipras retorted: “My dear friend, Mr. President, we must not forget that this issue remains unresolved because 43 years ago there was an illegal invasion and occupation of the northern part of Cyprus.”

Erdogan also raised the issue of Athens having no official mosque, to which Tsipras responded by saying Greece had restored several mosques around the country, including a centuries-old mosque in Athens.

The refugee crisis appeared to be the only issue the two sides did not disagree on, with both noting they had shared a significant burden of the migration flows into the European Union. More than a million people crossed from Turkey through Greece at the height of the crisis.

Later Thursday, several hundred leftist, anarchist and Kurdish protesters held a peaceful march through Athens against Erdogan’s visit. On Friday, Erdogan will visit the northeastern town of Komotini to meet with members of Greece’s Muslim minority.

Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Derek Gatopoulos and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed.

December 03, 2017

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanian authorities say that despite less rainfall and lower river levels, thousands of homes and scores of schools have been damaged, and agricultural land is still submerged.

The government said Sunday that 600 families were evacuated Saturday in two southwestern districts. More than 3,000 homes, 56 schools and 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres) of agricultural land have been flooded. Many roads and 28 bridges have been damaged.

Authorities have started calculating the damage to consider financial compensation. At least one person has died in the last several days of heavy rainfall that has flooded many parts of Albania. Ports and the only international airport were temporarily closed for part of the weekend.

Schools were closed Friday and the Education Ministry will make a decision soon about Monday’s classes.

November 24, 2017

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovo police on Friday arrested a top opposition leader and two other lawmakers accused of disrupting the work of the previous parliament with tear gas and violent acts. Albin Kurti, Donika Kadaj Bujupi and Albulena Haxhiu of the left-wing Self-Determination Party were arrested while entering the parliament building.

Police used tear gas to disperse some opposition supporters trying to block their minivan that was taking Kurti. Visar Ymeri, leader of the Self-Determination Party, denounced the “brutal arrest of the three lawmakers based on political orders” and considered it “continuation of the overall persecution of Self-Determination during recent times.”

Since the signing of a border demarcation agreement with Montenegro in August 2015 the opposition has contested it, saying Kosovo is ceding territory — a claim denied by the previous government and international experts. The protesters disrupted parliamentary work, using tear gas canisters, blowing whistles and throwing water bottles.

Approval of the deal is a pre-condition for a visa-free regime for Kosovo citizens in the European Union’s Schengen countries. Political tension in the country remains high over who won mayoral election last month. It is not yet clear whether Self-Determination will keep the mayor’s post in the capital Pristina or it will go to the other now-opposition Democratic League of Kosovo.

Another aching issue is a special court established to prosecute crimes committed during and immediately after Kosovo’s 1998-1999 war with Serbia for independence. It is expected to issue indictments against former independence fighters.

Associated Press writer Llazar Semini contributed from Tirana, Albania.

October 09, 2017

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Bosnia’s war crimes court on Monday acquitted the wartime commander of Srebrenica, who was accused of committing atrocities against Serbs during the 1992-95 Balkan conflict.

The acquittal of Naser Oric immediately prompted anger from Serbian leaders, with Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin saying the court ruling “threatens security, trust and reconciliation in the whole of the Balkans.”

Oric was accused of war crimes against three Serb prisoners of war who were slain in villages around the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in the early days of the conflict. A panel of judges presiding over the trial ruled Monday the prosecution did not present evidence proving the case against Oric.

Oric had previously been tried by a U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, where he was also acquitted in 2008. Oric is seen as a hero by many Muslim Bosnians for his role in defending Srebrenica, where Serb forces massacred some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995. The Srebrenica massacre, the worst single atrocity in Europe since World War II, is the only episode of Bosnia’s war to be defined as genocide by two U.N. courts.

Serbs continue to claim the 1995 Srebrenica slaughter was an act of revenge by uncontrolled troops because they say that soldiers under Oric’s command killed thousands of Serbs in the villages surrounding the eastern town.

“It is clear that we will have to fight for justice ourselves,” said Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Still, he urged Serbs not to “utter a hard word against Bosniak Muslim) neighbors so that we can build friendship with them and build a future together with them.”

Bosnian Serb political leader Milorad Dodik said Oric’s acquittal showed there was no justice for Serbs. He called on Serb judges and prosecutors to abandon their posts in Bosnia’s top court and prosecution office and urged all Bosnian Serb political representatives “to gather around the cause of declaring the (two institutions) illegitimate.”

The Bosnian war pitted the country’s three main ethnic factions — Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims — against each other after Bosnia split from what was then Yugoslavia. More than 100,000 people were killed in the conflict before a peace deal was brokered in 1995.

AP Writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.

2017-10-11

NOVI PAZAR – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan received a rapturous welcome on Wednesday during a visit to the Serbian town of Novi Pazar, capital of the Muslim majority Sandzak region that has seen mass emigration to Turkey since the violent breakup of Yugoslavia.

Erdogan, on a two-day visit to Serbia, hopes to boost Turkey’s economic and cultural influence in the Balkan region, which was part of the Ottoman empire for centuries, at a time of increased tensions with the European Union and United States.

“We have special relations with this region. Your happiness is our happiness, your pain is our pain,” Erdogan told more than 10,000 people gathered in front of the municipality building.

“Sandzak is the biggest bridge linking us with our brothers in Serbia,” he said, with Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic standing close by.

Turkish influence is already strong among fellow Muslims in Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo, but mainly Orthodox Christian Serbia is traditionally much closer to Russia. However, Belgrade and Ankara, which both want to join the EU but are frustrated by the slow pace of progress, are keen to increase bilateral trade.

Erdogan said Turkey would finance the construction of a road linking Sandzak with the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, reconstruct an Ottoman-era hammam and build a bridge in Novi Pazar.

In Belgrade on Tuesday, Erdogan pledged gas and Turkish investments for the Balkans and he signed deals with Vucic to expand a bilateral free trade agreement.

In Novi Pazar, local people waved Turkish flags and the green and blue flags of Serbia’s Muslim community, and chanted Allahu Akbar (God is greatest). A big banner read “Welcome Sultan” and was signed by “Ottoman grandchildren”.

“Erdogan is our nation’s leader, Vucic is our state leader, this is the greatest day for us Muslims to have them both here,” Ismail Ismailovic, 28, from the nearby town of Tutin, farmer, sporting long beard and white embroidered Muslim skull cap.

It was a far cry from the 1990s when Serbia and Turkey were sharply at odds in the conflicts that tore apart Yugoslavia. Turkey sees itself as the historic defender of Muslims across the Balkan region.

“I know I am not going to be welcomed here like Erdogan is,” said Vucic, who was a firebrand Serbian nationalist during the wars of the 1990s but has turned strongly pro-EU. “But at least I can come out and say that I am working in your best interest.”

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85351.

October 11, 2017

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Albania’s president has turned down a request from his Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci to issue Albanian passports for citizens in neighboring Kosovo, the only nation in Europe excluded from a visa-free European travel zone.

Ilir Meta, who is visiting Kosovo Wednesday, said the solution was “through dialogue.” The European Union insists Kosovo must approve a border demarcation deal with Montenegro before its citizens can enjoy visa-free travel within the so-called Schengen zone.

Opposition lawmakers in Kosovo have refused to ratify that deal, saying it meant Kosovo would lose land. Albania has enjoyed access to the visa-free regime since 2010. Kosovo’s 1.9 million population is mainly ethnic Albanian.

August 10, 2017

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Bosnia is marking the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s visit, her last overseas tour before she died in a car crash in Paris. Her crusade against land mines led to her three-day visit to Bosnia from Aug. 9, 1997, during which she met victims who sustained injuries from devices planted during the country’s savage civil war in the 1990s.

Three weeks after her visit, which coincided with news of her romance with millionaire Dodi al Fayed, the pair died in a car crash in Paris when their driver lost control of his car as they were pursued by photographers.

British Ambassador Edward Ferguson said Thursday during a memorial conference in Sarajevo that Diana would be saddened by the fact that mines still kill people in Bosnia. “What I think 20 years ago Princess Diana did is that she shone a light on this problem with mines, and she really brought it into public attention in an enormous way, in a way, perhaps, that only she could have done,” Ferguson said.

“By walking through a mine field in Angola, by visiting Bosnia-Hercegovina just a few days before she sadly died. She really got the public attention and therefore political attention as well.” He said undetected land mines still represent a danger in Bosnia despite some recent progress. A half-million people, or about 15 percent of the population, live with this fear of mines, Ferguson added.

The princess’ trip to Bosnia was organized by The Land Mines Survivors’ Network, a group founded in 1995 by two American victims of land mines, Ken Rutherford and Jerry White. As part of the visit, Diana made a surprise visit to the Suljkanovic family in their modest home in the small village of Dobrnja near Tuzla.

Several weeks earlier, the father of the family, Muhamed Suljkanovic, had lost both his feet after stepping on a land mine in the forest outside his house, a remnant of Bosnia’s three-year war. Diana took him some cake on Aug. 9, his birthday, his wife Suada remembered.

“Diana and her friend Ken (Rutherford), the American, they brought the birthday cake, and they sang happy birthday to him, and we were in shock. How did they know?” But the Suljkanovic family’s joy turned to shock and disbelief when, just a few weeks after Diana’s visit, they heard on the radio that the princess had died.

“What? I said to myself. How? Where? I could not believe it. Immediately after that I named my newborn daughter Diana, after the princess. They say we have to somehow remember good people, and we remember her like that,” Muhamed Suljkanovic said.

During her visit, Princess Diana promised financial support for Muhamed for a new prosthesis. Just a couple of months after she died, the family say they received a donation from the royal family, the exact amount promised by Diana.

Another land mine victim, Malic Bradaric, was only 13 in 1996 when he stepped on one while playing in his village of Klokotnica. The incident left him without most of his right leg. When Diana came to visit, he said this week that he expected a royal in a shiny dress wearing a crown. Instead, she arrived on his doorstep wearing jeans and a white shirt.

Bradaric and his friends, who had a chance to meet Diana, said she was “a light at the end of the tunnel” for them. He now remembers the shock when he heard that the princess was killed. “That light that we saw at the end of the tunnel just turned off,” Bradaric said.

Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic from Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.

August 01, 2017

MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Thousands of people converged on the southern Bosnian city of Mostar over the weekend for an annual diving competition from a historic bridge that has drawn crowds for more than four centuries.

Over 10,000 spectators cheered and let off smoke bombs as they watched 41 daring men take the plunge from the Old Bridge during Mostar’s 451st annual diving competition. The competitors dove from a bridge 27 meters (89 feet) high into the cold, fast-flowing Neretva River below in front of a panel of judges studying the quality of the dive.

The fall from the top of the bridge to the 4.5-meter (15-foot) deep river underneath lasts nearly three seconds, with divers picking up a speed of around 80 kph (50 mph). At the end of a beautiful Sunday afternoon of diving, 38-year-old Mostar native Lorens Listo claimed his 11th competition victory.

“Every time I compete it is more difficult and every victory is thus sweeter,” Listo said. Diving or jumping from the bridge, originally built by the Ottomans in 1566, has been a rite of passage for generations of Mostar youngsters.

The Old Bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was destroyed during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, but was painstakingly rebuilt after the conflict. “I compete elsewhere as well, but I love diving from the Old Bridge more than anything else,” Listo said.

The event climaxed with participants jumping from the bridge after nightfall with flares in their outstretched hands.

July 11, 2017

SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Tens of thousands of people converged on Srebrenica Tuesday for a funeral for dozens of newly identified victims of the 1995 massacre in the Bosnian town. Remains of 71 Muslim Bosniak victims, including seven juvenile boys and a woman, were buried at the memorial cemetery on the 22nd anniversary of the crime. They were laid to rest next to over 6,000 other Srebrenica victims found previously in mass graves. The youngest victim buried this year was 15, the oldest was 72.

Adela Efendic came to Srebrenica to bury the remains of her father, Senaid. “I was 20-day-old baby when he was killed. I have no words to explain how it feels to bury the father you have never met,” Efendic said. “You imagine what kind of a person he might have been, but that is all you have.”

More than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys perished in 10 days of slaughter after Srebrenica was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces on July 11, 1995. It is the only episode of Bosnia’s fratricidal 1992-95 war to be defined as genocide by two U.N. courts.

Serbs hastily disposed of the victims’ bodies in several large pits, then dug them up again and scattered the remains over the nearly 100 smaller mass graves and hidden burial sites around the town. Every year forensic experts identify newly found remains through DNA analysis before reburial.

Most coffins are lowered into their graves by strangers, because all male members of the victims’ families had often been killed. “I was looking for him for 20 years…they found him in a garbage dump last December,” Emina Salkic said through tears, hugging the coffin of her brother Munib. He was 16 when he was killed.

Srebrenica was besieged by Serb forces for years before it fell. It was declared a U.N. “safe haven” for civilians in 1993, but a Security Council mission that visited shortly afterward described the town as “an open jail” where a “slow-motion process of genocide” was in effect.

When Serb forces led by Gen. Ratko Mladic broke through two years later, Srebrenica’s terrified Muslim Bosniak population rushed to the U.N. compound hoping that Dutch U.N. peacekeepers would protect them. But the outgunned peacekeepers watched helplessly as Mladic’s troops separated out men and boys for execution and sent the women and girls to Bosnian government-held territory.

An appeals court in The Hague ruled this month that the Dutch government was partially liable in the deaths of more than 300 people who were turned away from the compound. Mladic is now on trial before a U.N. war crimes tribunal, but many Bosnian Serbs, including political leaders, continue to deny that the slaughter constituted genocide.

“We are again calling on Serbs and their political and intellectual elites to find courage to face the truth and stop denying genocide,” Bakir Izetbegovic, Bosniak member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, said in his address to the mourners.

Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, the head of the EU delegation to Bosnia, said that remembering what happened in Srebrenica was “the common duty of us as Europeans,” especially as we live “in a world where facts and truth are being manipulated.”

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the international community, “and in particular the United Nations,” have accepted their share of responsibility, and that all parties must acknowledge “that these crimes occurred and our roles in allowing them to occur.”

“The difficult task of building trust to allow for full reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina lies with the people of the country’s various communities,” Guterres said in a statement. “To build a better and common future, the tragedies of the past must be recognized by those communities.”

Amel Emric in Srebrenica and Edie Lederer in New York contributed