Divided Kosovo mountain village unites to fight hydropower plant

By Fatos Bytyci

BITI E POSHTME, Kosovo, Oct 11 (Reuters) - Kosovo Albanians and their Serb neighbours, who have lived apart in their tiny village for decades, united on Friday to protest against the building of a hydropower plant which they say will deprive them of water and all-important raspberry crop.

Police used pepper spray on Tuesday to disperse villagers who were trying to stop the bulldozers moving in at the foot of the forested Brezovica mountain, home to Kosovo's biggest and most famous ski resort. More than 20, including women and children, were wounded.

The ethnic Albanian majority and small Serb minority in the village of Biti E Poshtme said the plant would dry the Lepenc river bed.

They waved placards saying "Lepenc is our water and our food" and "Water is life" as they marched through the village watched by dozens of police and NATO peacekeepers from Poland.

Protests have been held almost every week, but without success. Bulldozers have begun installing metal tubes, part of the hydropower pipeline.

"If they bury our river we have to leave our homes," said Fatlume Rushiti, 27, who came to protest close to her home with her two daughters.

"We are fighting for the future of our children."

The biggest income for the families is their raspberry crop.

If the hydropower project goes ahead "the people will have to leave this area as they cannot survive", said Zvonko Mihajlovic, a Serb economist.

More than 80 small hydro plants are planned for Kosovo as the government pushes to increase electricity production from renewable sources.

Kosovo produces only 2 percent of its power from renewable sources. The remainder is produced by two ailing coal-fired plants.

Under plans being considered, nearly 3,000 hydropower plants could be built across the Western Balkans, with about a third of them in protected areas, which has prompted a series of protests in Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro.

Last month, environmental campaigners urged the European Union to curb the number of small hydropower projects by pressing for more stringent environmental legislation and a more cost-effective subsidy system.

Montenegro in May decided to stop issuing permits for the construction of small hydropower plants and to reconsider those awarded so far.

Uta Ibrahimi, the first Kosovo woman to reach the top of Mount Everest, joined the protests on Friday despite a broken leg.

"We don't understand that our natural beauties are our treasure," Ibrahimi said. "Tourists come here because Kosovo (nature) is wild and if we put our rivers in tubes, what do we have to put on show?" (Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Nick Macfie)