By Fatos Bytyci
BREZOVICA, Kosovo (Reuters) – Kosovo police have seized dozens of holiday villas in an alpine national park where some owners are suspected of paying local officials heavy bribes to secure building permits, officials said on Thursday.
It is the biggest police operation since Prime Minister Albin Kurti came to power last year promising to fight crime and corruption, often cited as the main obstacles to foreign investment in Kosovo.
High trees have been cut back to make way for the two- and three-storey villas in the Sharr national park, with huge windows overlooking the valley as the first snow begins to fall. Police tape has been put around the buildings with signs saying they have been temporarily seized.
The park is home to Kosovo’s sole ski resort of Brezovica with 39,000 hectares of high alpine terrain and forests and offers an average of 128 skiing days a year.
Prosecution documents, seen by Reuters, show that nine people had admitted that they gave municipality officials at least two million euros, in total, to get construction permits. So far about 70 villas have been seized and 30 people, officials and businessmen, detained. Prosecutors said they were investigating another 70 suspects and more villas were expected to be confiscated.
Many Serbs in Kosovo, who make up around 5 percent of the Albanian-majority population, refuse to recognise the country’s 2008 declaration of independence and ethnic tensions run high.
The municipality of Strpce, which controls Brezovica, is run by Serbs.
“Some Albanian businessmen have offered and have paid money and other benefits to high-ranking officials in the municipality to build villas at the holiday zone in an area where building is not allowed,” said lawyer Elmaz Zenuni, representing a low-profile official who he said had never received any money.
Contacted by Reuters, some villa owners refused to comment. The prosecution said many registered names at the properties were not real.
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Nick Macfie)