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Kosovo: Serbs, Albanians, KFOR Face Off In Mitrovica

The ethnically divided city of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo is reported calm today (Thursday) following violent clashes Wednesday between Serbs and troops of the NATO-led peacekeeping force, KFOR. The troops pushed back Serbs who have been harassing the remaining ethnic Albanian and Bosniak inhabitants. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Mitrovica on the emotional dispute.

Mitrovica, 16 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The divided city of Mitrovica is a metaphor for the future of Kosovo. Nine months after the arrival of the NATO-led peacekeeping troops of KFOR, the city straddles a front line between Kosovar Albanians, seeking full independence for their province, and Kosovo Serbs, who have not yet given up hope of expelling the Albanians once and for all.

The Serbs live in two square kilometers north of the Ibar River, the Albanians inhabit the larger, more heavily damaged, level part of the city south of the river. Two road bridges and a temporary footbridge, all heavily guarded by KFOR, link the two parts.

The few Albanians still inhabiting the north say they are subject to constant harassment and threats by their Serbian neighbors. The Albanians send their children to schools in the south, where they also do their shopping. When a clash erupts in the north, crowds of Serbian vigilantes converge on the scene within seconds and KFOR immediately seals off the bridges in the interest of public safety.

Last Sunday, a wedding party of Serbs descended on the square by the north side of the main (western) bridge to wave the Serbian flag and dance the kolo in defiance at what they perceive as the Albanian occupation of most of Kosovo.

The dancers' shuffling almost drowned out two accordionists playing a World War I ditty, "March on the Drina River."

The mother of the bride, Svetla Popovic, spoke to our correspondent.

"We are defending Serbia here on the bridge. We are celebrating a wedding. We do not want a fight, but peace."

The groom, Miroslav Milovic, explained why his wedding was being celebrated beside the bridge. His brother chimed in that the Albanians should leave and his new mother-in-law swore vengeance against Kosovar Albanian Muslims. "We came to celebrate here a bit because this is a Serbian place," Milovic said. His brother added: "They should all be kicked out of Vucitrn, Pristina, Djakovica, back to Albania! Serbia is everywhere!" Popovic added: "When we get back to Vucitrn, we are going to baptize the Albanians!"

Although no Serbian forces remain in Kosovo, Serb-controlled north Mitrovica is in the hands of vigilantes, both local and displaced Kosovo Serbs, many of whom are equipped with secret police communications equipment, including miniature two-way radios pinned to their coat collars. Strangers are under constant surveillance as soon as they cross into north Mitrovica.

French KFOR troops and UN civilian police maintain a very visible presence in north Mitrovica. In the event of an incident, additional KFOR troops armed with anti-riot gear and backed by a fleet of helicopters deploy in a matter of minutes to reinforce the bridges and to prevent any civilians, except the wounded, from crossing.

On Wednesday, several hundred Serbs tried to stop KFOR from setting up a 100-meter-wide safety zone by the eastern bridge, touching off a melee in which some 15 Serbs were injured, as well as several KFOR soldiers and foreign journalists.

Until now, the Serbs have largely praised French KFOR in north Mitrovica. But the Albanians accuse the French of collaborating with the Serbs. French KFOR denies the accusation.

An Albanian resident of North Mitrovica, Nazmi Sahiti, suffered minor leg injuries and his son Nahim serious injuries to the groin and both legs when a Serb threw a grenade into a neighbor's backyard while they were cutting wood last week.

"Seven people were injured, three of them seriously. One is in danger of dying. French KFOR did nothing, they just sat there. We asked them to move the Serbs away, and we asked them, who are they working for?"

Sahiti credits German KFOR troops, who guard the eastern bridge nearest to where the incident occurred, with coming to the rescue and quelling the rioters.

Enver Hasani is a Mitrovica-born professor of international relations who currently divides his time between Turkey and Kosovo. Hasani blames the situation in Mitrovica in part on what he terms "the inaction of the French KFOR troops and Kouchner's UN administration." He says the problem has been festering for a long time and may have serious consequences for the rest of Kosovo.

"The approach in Mitrovica is very bad, because the international community in Kosovo is trying to settle it through the local leaders, which is not a good approach. The problem of Mitrovica is the problem of all of Kosovo and all of the Albanians living in the region, because if Mitrovica, one way or the other, is perceived as going to be united with Serbia in a violent way, then it will have repercussions on the other side of [Kosovo], meaning Macedonia. Because the Albanians in Macedonia would say, 'listen if you can infringe upon the integrity of Kosovo, then why not Macedonia,' which is quite logical."

Hasani says the fate of Mitrovica should be resolved step by step, together with the Kosovar leadership in Pristina, within the framework of a multiethnic, multicultural Kosovo. He says the Kosovar leadership should give the international community guarantees that the Serbian community in Mitrovica and the north will not be pushed out.

Similarly, the head of a Pristina-based NGO, sociologist Fadil Maloku of the Institute for Human Rights and Ethnic Relations in Kosovo, says Mitrovica is just part of the Belgrade regime's grand plan. He says events there depend on developments in neighboring Montenegro.

"In my view, Mitrovica is a starting point of the enclavization of several groups of Serbs in Kosovo as part of a scenario prepared somewhere else to provoke politicians in Brussels and elsewhere to start considering an ethnic division of Kosovo. Does this mean that Brussels will accept this political logic?"

Maloku says that the way the situation around Mitrovica develops will have an impact on the future definition of Kosovo's political status. He warns that if Montenegro remains part of rump-Yugoslavia, Kosovar Albanians will find it even more difficult to win independence for their province.

Maloku suggests that what is needed is a political compromise that would enable the return of some 100,000 displaced Serbs who fled Kosovo last June in the wake of Belgrade's capitulation to NATO.

"I think that Mitrovica and Kosovo need a compromise, like Vukovar and eastern Slavonia, which were eventually reintegrated into Croatia's territorial integrity. Albanian politicians need to make a compromise by starting to allow Serbs to return to their homes, not only in Mitrovica, but in all Kosovo."

As Maloku puts it, with a population that is already 95 percent Albanian due to the high birthrate, Kosovar Albanians do not need to engage in ethnic cleansing.