Serb authorities blocked three U.S. Congress members from entering Kosovo for a fact-finding mission Saturday, accusing them of supporting the province’s ethnic Albanian separatists. Serb police arrested five American activists and a U.S. journalist already in the province.
The moves underlined Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s resistance to outside intervention - particularly from the United States - in Kosovo, which exploded in violence after four Serb policemen were shot dead on Feb. 28.
The steps came on the eve of elections by Kosovo’s Albanians, who outnumber Serbs by 9-to-1 in the province, for their self-styled Republic of Kosovo. Serb police said they had found 100,000 ballot papers already marked for the lone presidential candidate in today’s elections, Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of the Albanians’ quest for independence.
Tadei Rodici, president of the Albanians’ electoral commission, said police had confiscated electoral lists and ballot papers on Friday. The Albanians printed new ballots, he added.
Meanwhile, Richard Huckaby of the U.S. Information Center in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, said six Americans - most with a San Francisco-based activist group called Peaceworkers - were arrested Saturday morning after they went to a police station to register their presence with authorities, as required by law.
Police detained them after they found the Americans had overstepped the three-day limit for registration, Huckaby said. Within hours, the six were sentenced to 10 days and taken away to jail, he said.
Richard Miles, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Belgrade, said the United States was “outraged” at the penalty.
“This is not helpful at a time of such crisis between our governments,” Miles said in a statement.
In San Francisco, Peaceworkers spokeswoman Sandra Schwartz said the group’s director, David Hartsough, had taken college students Daniel Perez, Bruce Hemmer, Daniel Sevallos and Teresa Crawford to Kosovo to monitor a March 13 student protest.
A sixth American arrested with them, Peter Lippman, is a journalist, although it was not immediately known for whom he worked.
Elsewhere, border guards turned back the three Congress members at a southern checkpoint, saying they lacked the proper visas to enter the Yugoslav federation, which consists of Serbia and Montenegro.
The 14-member group, led by Reps. Sue Kelly, R-N.Y., Jim Moran, D-Va., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said it was on a fact-finding mission and wanted to monitor today’s elections.
Yugoslav leaders have been sensitive about foreign access to Kosovo in the wake of the crackdown; aid groups previously said they had been barred from reaching villages targeted in the offensives.
“It is an absolute disgrace,” Engel told reporters after his group was blocked at the border. “If you are not letting three American congressmen come to your country, it must mean that you have something to hide.”
Engel said the group was told in neighboring Macedonia that they did not fill out their visa applications in Washington properly.
They were turned down when they tried to apply in Macedonia, and decided to try at the border, he added.
The Yugoslav Foreign Ministry said it was “not acceptable to come to Yugoslavia uninvited and to have the visitors determine themselves when, and through which point, they will enter.”
Seven ethnic Albanian opposition parties said they would boycott the voting, complaining it would be a “popularity poll” for Rugova, who has urged a massive turnout and called the vote a virtual referendum for independence.
Serbia, which revoked the province’s autonomy in 1989, does not recognize today’s elections, but says it will not interfere.
Kosovo has seen almost daily independence rallies this month, sparked by anger over police crackdowns that killed more than 80 ethnic Albanians. The crackdowns were aimed at militant separatists blamed in the deadly Feb. 28 attack on Serb police.