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Yugoslavia: Tensions Remain High In Mitrovica

  • Jolyon Naegele

Tensions remain high in the divided Kosovo city of Mitrovica, following unrest last week that left eight ethnic Albanian residents dead. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele says ethnic Albanian leaders fear Belgrade is exploiting the situation in Mitrovica to destabilize Kosovo.

Prague, 10 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The international community is using armed force as well as words of warning in a bid to contain the latest wave of unrest and violence in Mitrovica.

The head of the UN mission in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, speaking to reporters in Pristina on Tuesday after a meeting of Kosovo's joint governing council, summed up the international community's policy in Mitrovica as "security, security, security."

Kouchner specifically mentioned Zoran Andjelkovic, who was Yugoslavia's governor of Kosovo until the NATO airstrikes last year. He said Andjelkovic should desist from efforts to establish a powerbase in the Serbian-held part of Mitrovica.

"If Andjelkovic is leaving for Mitrovica and is establishing new parallel structures, we have to tell him -- and I am telling all the Kosovars -- it will not be tolerated."

The NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping force, KFOR, is beefing up controls on Kosovo's border with Serbia to prevent the infiltration of plainclothed Serbian paramilitaries and special police into Mitrovica and surrounding villages.

Hashim Thaci, the former leader of the disbanded Kosova Liberation Army, or UCK, addressed a crowd in Mitrovica Tuesday in an apparent attempt to calm tensions.

Thaci urged the use of institutional methods rather than violence or demonstrations to resolve differences between the city's Albanian and Serb populations.

"Any problem in Kosovo must be solved in cooperation with the international community. Violence is not the way to solve problems in Mitrovica. We will not respond with violence to the institutional Serb violence and terrorism."

Thaci's message is that the regime in Belgrade, having institutionalized violence at home, is now sending "agents provocateurs" to Mitrovica to foment unrest that could eventually spread throughout the province.

Another leading Albanian members of Kosovo's joint governing council, Rexhep Cosja, agrees. He notes that the Serbs control the northern part of Mitrovica, as well as areas of Kosovo north of the town.

"Mitrovica is Kosova's Achilles' heel. Someone has focused a strategy on Mitrovica and from the north, Mitrovica is destabilizing Kosovo. We must have a strategy for Mitrovica because it is a key territorial question for Kosovo."

Cosja says Mitrovica must be free and a part of Kosovo. He says the barricades between the Serbs on the north side of the river Ibar from the Albanians on the south side must come down.

The latest trouble erupted after a grenade assault on a UN bus one week ago outside of Mitrovica that left two Serbs dead. Unrest erupted in the town the following day, when unknown assailants lobbed grenades into a bar in Serb-controlled northern Mitrovica, wounding 15 people. Serbian residents responded in a rampage of shootings, grenade attacks and arson, in which six Albanians and two ethnic Turks were killed and many more injured. French KFOR troops proved unable to halt the Serbian rampage.

U.S. members of the UN civilian police in Mitrovica have complained to reporters that the French KFOR peacekeepers are not operating according to the international community's rules of engagement. For example, after the UN police learned that Serbs were distributed grenades on Saturday and contacted KFOR to accompany the police to disarm the Serbs, the French declined, saying they did not want to inflame the Serbs.

KFOR has since deployed German and Italian peacekeepers to strengthen the French and Danish forces in Mitrovica, and troops from Britain, Italy, Belgium, and the United Arab Emirates are controlling access to the city.

Since last week's violence, at least 550 of the estimated 3,000 Albanian and other non-Serbian residents have fled Serbian-controlled northern Mitrovica, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But the agency says the true number of newly displaced Kosovars is probably considerably higher, since many have not registered with the UN agency since fleeing and are staying with relatives and friends.