By Branko Filipovic
PRESEVO, Serbia (Reuters) - More than 200 heavily armed and masked Serbian police took down a memorial to ethnic Albanian guerrillas in Serbia's south overnight, trying to end a row that has highlighted still-simmering tension in the region.
Security forces deployed armored personnel carriers to cordon off the main square in the southern, mainly Albanian, town of Presevo, and hauled away the memorial bearing the names of 27 guerrillas who died during an insurgency in the region in 2001, a Reuters reporter at the scene said on Sunday.
The scale of the operation, which followed weeks of threats and counter-threats between Serbian government officials and local ethnic Albanians, highlighted how fragile the situation remains in the south, which borders Serbia's former Kosovo province.
The government of Kosovo condemned the removal of the memorial, saying it "undermines the dialogue process to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia."
Majority Albanian Kosovo declared independence in 2008 almost a decade after NATO air strikes wrested control of the territory from Belgrade to end a brutal Serbian counter-insurgency war.
The 2000-2001 insurgency in the southern Serbian regions of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac was widely seen as a spillover of the Kosovo conflict, as ethnic Albanians in Serbia's south pressed to join newly free Kosovo.
NATO brokered a peace deal, and Serbia pledged greater rights and economic opportunity for the south. But progress has been patchy, and southern Serbia remains the poorest region of a country now aiming to join the European Union.
Ethnic Albanians regard the guerrillas as heroes. Serbia says they are terrorists.
"Serbia has shown enough patience, but it has also sent a clear and strong message that the law must be respected and that no one is stronger than the state," Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said in comments carried by the state news agency Tanjug.
There were no incidents during the police operation.
There are other monuments to the guerrillas in the area, but the one removed overnight held pride of place on Presevo's central square, in front of the local council building. Dacic had described it as a provocation.
Tensions in the region, known as the Presevo Valley, have the potential to complicate EU-mediated talks between Serbia and Kosovo aimed at normalizing their relations five years after Kosovo declared independence.
In a statement, the government of Kosovo said it called on Albanians in the area to stay calm.
"This action by the government of Serbia is another proof that the hate against Albanians that live in the Presevo Valley is still alive," the Kosovo government said in a statement.
Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as sovereign, but is under pressure to cooperate with the new country before the EU moves ahead with Belgrade's bid to join the bloc.
(Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Pristina; Editing by Matt Robinson and Jason Webb)