Dozens of heavily armed Serbian special police have removed a monument local authorities had erected to Albanian rebels in a mainly ethnic Albanian southern city, risking tensions in the restive area of Serbia and a worsening of ties with Kosovo.
Some 200 special police forces carried out the operation at the town centre of Presevo, about 400km south of Belgrade on Sunday, Al Jazeera's Stefan Goranovic said.
"They surrounded the area and in a matter of minutes, with the help of heavy machinery detached the marble monument from the ground," Goranovic said.
The move to cart the monument off with a bulldozer was criticised in Albania and Kosovo, whose ethnic Albanian majority proclaimed independence from Serbia in 2008.
"The move by the Serbian government seriously endangers the process of a dialogue on normalisation of ties between Kosovo and Serbia," said a government statement sent to the AFP news agency.
It referred to ongoing European Union-brokered talks between the Pristina and Belgrade, which rejects Kosovo's self-proclaimed independence that has been recognised by about 90 states, including the US and a majority of EU members.
Belgrade said the "illegally erected monument" to former fighters of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (LAPMB) violates Serbian state laws.
Act of vandalism
About 100 people gathered on the square after the removal as local Albanian political leaders met to consider the situation.
Even as local Albanian leaders called for calm, they are gearing up for a major protest on Monday, according to Goranovic.
Members of the LAPMB fought Serbian government forces in 2001, seeking to free the region with its Albanian majority population from Serbian rule to join Kosovo, which was under UN administration at the time.
Ethnic Albanian insurgents were disarmed after the conflict under an internationally-brokered peace agreement.
Two months ago, local authorities erected the monument outside the city hall in downtown Presevo, sparking condemnation from Belgrade, which considers the LAPMB a terrorist organisation.
The two-meter rectangular stone slab displays the LAPMB insignia in bright red, and has engravings of the names of guerrillas who died in the conflict.
The head of an umbrella Albanian organisation in Presevo described the monument's removal Sunday as "an unacceptable act of vandalism".
The government of Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, however, defended the decision for its removal.
"We showed enough patience. Our clear and strong message is that the law should be respected and that no one is stronger than the state," Dacic said, according to national RTS television
In January, several rounds of talks between the government and Presevo authorities failed to find middle ground.
Belgrade had proposed relocating the monument to a suburb of Presevo.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies