The death toll in ethnic rioting in the predominantly Albanian province of Kosovo rose to 21 Tuesday, with disturbances and demonstrations spreading to more towns as the Albanians continued to protest increased Serbian control over the region.
Tanks and riot police officers armed with automatic weapons ringed the regional capital of Pristina, where a curfew was in force from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. Schools and universities were closed and gatherings of more than three people were prohibited as the authorities tried to put a lid on the protests, which have been mounting for a week.
The Serbian state radio in Belgrade reported clashes Tuesday with the police in Pec, Mitrovica, Lipljan, Podujevo and Magusa. Federal police officials said Albanians were shooting at the police from rooftops and windows.
At least 18 of the deaths occurred Monday, the authorities reported. Most of them were in Pristina, where, they said, the police fired over the protesters’ heads and then directly at them with automatic weapons.
An 18-year-old man was shot to death Tuesday as 500 rioters, many carrying guns, attacked a police station at Zur, a village near the Albanian border, the official news agency Tanjug reported. A police spokesman said the police had fired tear gas from helicopters with virtually no effect and that the protesters had used firearms first.
While the two days’ worth of casualties, including three fatally wounded police officers, were being counted, the Serbian National Assembly was ratifying a series of constitutional changes that will return the province’s judiciary and police to Serbian control.
The unanimous passage of the constitutional changes, carried out with high ceremony in Belgrade, brought a holiday atmosphere to the streets of the national capital. The central streets were blocked off Tuesday afternoon and festooned with banners as Serbs celebrated the culmination of a year-long drive to reassert their control over Kosovo, regarded by most Serbs as the Serbian national heartland, although the 2 million ethnic Albanians living there now make up 95% of its population.
No Swift Answer
Kosovo is the poorest region in the Yugoslav federation, and Tuesday’s passage of a new system of Serbian controls over the region seems unlikely to provide a swift answer to its longstanding problems.
The federal presidency of this cumbersomely governed federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces may be forced in the coming days to clamp on a state of emergency to augment the “special measures” already in force. Such a declaration, tantamount to martial law, would be welcomed by Serbs anxious to force the Albanians into submission, but a long-term solution may be more elusive.
Kosovo, which is adjacent to Albania, was once a part of Serbia but was given its status as an autonomous province under a 1974 revision of the Yugoslav constitution, promulgated at the direction of Yugoslavia’s postwar leader, Josip Broz Tito.
The other Yugoslav republics, always wary of Serbia’s power in the federation, were happy to go along with the change since it represents a method of checking the Serbs, who account for 22% of the total population, the largest national group in the country.
In the intervening years, however, the Serbs have complained that they have been driven out of Kosovo by the rapidly mounting Albanian population, and the arguments between the two groups have taken on increasingly virulent ethnic and religious overtones. The Serbs are overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian and the Albanians are predominantly Muslim.
The drive by the Serbs to regain control of the region was mounted more than a year ago, largely through the efforts of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian Communist Party leader, who began to draw large crowds through an appeal to Serbian nationalism.
It gathered force in the Serbian heartland, resulting in a strong challenge last October to the federal leadership of the Communist Party. At that time, Milosevic and his supporters were given the green light to press for the constitutional changes officially enacted Tuesday.
“Serbia is now equal to the other republics,” Borisav Jovic, president of the Serbian assembly, said Tuesday as he announced passage of the legislation. “Serbia has won back its constitution and its state sovereignty. We do not want any more or any less than any other republic.”
Milosevic, the man credited by most Serbs for engineering the change, did not speak at the assembly meeting. He left the meeting to tumultuous applause and surrounded by a phalanx of security agents.
The mood in Belgrade verged on the bizarre, with crowds milling about in the central streets and folk music blaring from loudspeakers. At the same time, the national television news, controlled by Milosevic’s Serbian supporters, discussed the triumph of the constitutional changes and saved the news of the death toll among the Albanians for later mention.
The Albanian protests were described by the federal government as having the characteristics of “armed rebellion” and as a continuation of the ethnic strife of 1981, when nine people were killed.
Three Albanian political leaders were arrested in Kosovo in January after a mine strike. One of them, a former party leader and Kosovo party Politburo member, Azem Vlasi, has been charged with counterrevolutionary activity, a charge that carries the death penalty.
The current disturbances started when the Kosovo assembly, under pressure from the Serbs, approved the constitutional changes that were adopted Tuesday by the Serbian legislature.
Death toll in Yugoslavia’s predominantly Albanian province of Kosovo rises to 21 in rioting over increased Serbian control.
Clashes reported in Zur, Pec, Mitrovica, Lipljan and Podujevo as curfew is enforced in regional capital of Pristina.