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NATO Sends Reinforcements To Kosovo As Clashes Escalate

Prague, 18 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- NATO says it is sending reinforcements into Kosovo following ethnic clashes throughout the province that have left at least 22 people dead and some 500 injured.

A spokesman for the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR), Dave Sullivan, said that about 100 U.S. troops serving with the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia were sent today to reinforce their counterparts in the UN-administered Serbian province of Kosovo.

The announcement came amid a UN report of renewed clashes between Serbs and ethnic Albanians. A spokeswoman for the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), Angela Joseph, said today that the Orthodox Church and several Serbian houses in Obilic, a town near the capital Pristina, have been set ablaze.

The clashes mark the worst violence in three years.

Yesterday's fighting began in the divided city of Mitrovica, following an angry protest by ethnic Albanians seeking to avenge the drowning deaths of at least two Albanian boys after they were allegedly driven into the Ibar River by Serbian assailants.

Gunfire broke out and grenades were thrown as police and KFOR peacekeepers moved in, firing tear gas and rubber bullets to stop ethnic Albanians from storming across a bridge over the Ibar, which divides Mitrovica's two communities.

The violence then spread to Kosovo's capital, Pristina. Riots were also reported in the cities of Pec, Gracanica, Gnjilane, Prizren, and Djakovica.

UN police today said at least 22 people were killed in yesterday clashes. An additional 500 were injured, including 61 police and 11 peacekeepers. It was not clear how many of the Kosovar victims were Serbs and how many were ethnic Albanians. A UN police spokesman said six Albanians and two Serbs were killed in the Mitrovica clashes.

The violence was the worst since February 2001, when suspected ethnic Albanian militants blew up a bus, killing 11 Serbs and injuring 40.

Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova and the UN administrator of Kosovo, Harri Holkeri, called for calm in a joint news conference yesterday in Pristina. Rugova called on both ethnic Albanians and Serbs to avoid confrontation. "I call on the citizens of Mitrovica to stop their protest so that the situation can calm down because the escalation of the situation is not in Kosovo's favor," rugova said. "I also call on the Serbian citizens of Caglavica to unblock the [Pristina-Skopje] road and [I call] on the Albanians to withdraw from the Veternik area so that the confrontation can be avoided."

Holkeri also made an appeal to restraint, warning that the violence could jeopardize the future of Kosovo. "I understand that, in moments like this, emotions are running high and that is why I, once again, will appeal to all communities to stay calm and not let such terrible incidents jeopardize the stability of Kosovo, the future of Kosovo," he said.

NATO spokesman Jamie Shea told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service yesterday that KFOR is making all efforts to restore the order in the province immediately. "KFOR obviously will do whatever it can, will deploy all of its forces, all of its assets in Kosovo to help to restore law and order as quickly as possible," Shea said.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer condemned the attacks on KFOR troops, calling them "outrageous."

In Belgrade, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who called an emergency cabinet meeting last night, appealed for an end to violence and said Kosovar Serbs deserved better protection. "When we speak about other solutions [to protect Serbs in Kosovo], I have in mind a different level of decentralization of the power in Kosovo and Metohia. A sort of autonomy for the Serbs and the other non-Albanians as part of autonomous Kosovo within Serbia. There are different terms for that -- I have used, for example, cantonization [of Kosovo], decentralization or creating of entities within Kosovo. Today's events proved again that sort of territorial autonomy could protect them [Serbs in Kosovo] -- something that KFOR is not capable of doing," Kostunica said.

But angry Serbian demonstrators took to the streets of the capital, appearing to ignore Kostunica's call. Protestors set fire to a historical mosque in the central Belgrade, in response to reports that several Orthodox churches and monasteries had been set ablaze in Kosovo. Protesters chanting "Go to Kosovo" clashed with Belgrade police. The mosque fire was reportedly put out after police dispersed demonstrators. Reports of Serbian protests also came from Novi Sad in northern Serbia and Nis.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan meanwhile also called for an end to violence, while the U.S. State Department warned it could damage the peace in the fragile region. Kosovo has been under the control of the United Nations since NATO bombing drove Serbian forces out in mid-1999, halting Serbian repression of Muslim Albanian civilians .

Kosovo's international airport in Pristina was reportedly closed for outbound flights today in the wake of yesterday's ethnic clashes.