As KFOR peacekeepers fought to keep tens of thousands of ethnic Albanian demonstrators from crossing into Serb-dominated northern Mitrovica yesterday, officials from the U.S. and NATO blamed Belgrade for fomenting ethnic hatred among Serbs in the city. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports.
Prague, 22 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and NATO officials are blaming the Yugoslav government for mounting ethnic tensions in the divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica.
The allegations were raised in New York Monday by Washington's ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke. Britain's George Robertson, the secretary-general of NATO, also said that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has had a direct hand in fomenting ethnic hatred amongst the Serbs who remain in Kosovo.
"There's no doubt that Milosevic will have a hand in some of the provocations being organized on the Serb side. That is, in many ways, to be expected."
The charges come as KFOR peacekeepers face increasing difficulties trying to keep Serbs and ethnic Albanians from attacking each other in Mitrovica. The city is divided by the Ibar River, with Serbs living to the north and ethnic Albanians to the south. Nine people -- both Serbs and ethnic Albanians -- have been killed as a result of ethnic violence in or near Mitrovica during the past month. Dozens more have been injured, prompting KFOR to take the unprecedented step of launching house-to-house searches for weapons on both sides of the city.
In the last two days, both Serbs and ethnic Albanians have clashed with the KFOR peacekeepers who guard the main bridge between Mitrovica's partitioned halves.
Yesterday, KFOR troops used tear gas to disperse thousands of ethnic Albanians who were trying to make their way toward the bridge from the south. Those involved in the clash had been part of a larger ethnic Albanian demonstration -- as many as 40,000 who marched 40 kilometers from Pristina to protest the de facto partition of Mitrovica.
Robertson called the attacks on KFOR a disgrace.
"There is an indefensible disgrace that a minority from either side of the ethnic divide should attack those troops who have been sent in by the international community to bring peace to a province that was torn apart by ethnic violence this time last year."
On Sunday, an angry crowd of about 500 Serbs attacked U.S. and German troops on the northern side of the bridge. They pelted the peacekeepers with stones and bottles as KFOR conducted its house-to-house searches. The Serbs chanted nationalist slogans promising that Serbia will expand its territory in the future:
"Serbia is not small. It will be bigger. It will be bigger."
The U.S. envoy to the UN, Holbrooke, says the Serbian crowd was not comprised merely of locals from the northern side of Mitrovica. He says Belgrade has directly orchestrated such demonstrations using Yugoslav Interior Ministry police sent to Mitrovica expressly to stir up ethnic tensions.
A leading Serbian Orthodox Church official from Kosovo, Bishop Artemije, told reporters at the UN headquarters yesterday that there may be some truth in part of Holbrooke's accusations.
Bishop Artemije said the most recent tensions in Mitrovica are "the products of policies of the Belgrade regime." But Bishop Artemije stopped short of saying that Interior Ministry police are organizing the Serbian demonstrations. And he added that the UN administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) had done its part to alienate Serbs by working too closely with ethnic Albanian hardliners.
The latest wave of violence began last month with an attack on Serbs. Unknown attackers fired a rocket at a UN bus transporting Serbian civilians to Mitrovica from other parts of Kosovo. The attack took place to the south of Mitrovica -- an area that is predominantly under the control of ethnic Albanians.