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Yugoslavia: Violence In Mitrovica Shows Ethnic Tension Still High In Kosovo

More violence in the divided northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica signals that ethnic tensions are still high in Kosovo more than 18 months after NATO air strikes ended. RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz takes a closer look at the latest confrontation in Kosovo between ethnic Albanians, Serbs, and KFOR peacekeepers.

Prague, 31 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Kosovo's international administrators say a fresh round of violence in the divided northern city of Mitrovica shows that ethnic Albanians and Serbs are still willing to use force to attain their political goals.

The violence has been condemned by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo as detrimental to the goal of rebuilding a multiethnic society in the province.

Yesterday, hundreds of ethnic Albanians clashed with French troops during a march to protest Mitrovica's worst violence since last summer. The demonstrators were angry about the killing on Monday of a 15-year-old ethnic Albanian boy in a grenade attack by militant Serbs.

Eighteen people were injured when a crowd of about 1,000 protesters tried to storm across an Ibar River bridge that links the divided halves of Mitrovica. Most of the injuries occurred when KFOR troops used tear gas and stun grenades to stop the crowd from crossing into the Serb-dominated northern part of the city.

Michael Keats, a spokesman for Mitrovica's chief UN administrator, Tony Welch, confirmed that yesterday's clashes were the result of anger over the grenade attack on Monday.

"The trouble began when an Albanian house in the little Bosnia area of northern Mitrovica was set on fire [on Monday] -- apparently by a group of Serbs who also threw two hand grenades and opened fire with small arms."

Welch describes the events as a spiral of violence. He says he suspects Monday's attack by Serb militants was in retaliation for a weekend search conducted by KFOR at the offices of Mitrovica's self-declared Serb leadership -- the so-called Serbian National Council.

Welch says the search was called after some Serbs in northern Mitrovica tried on Saturday to test the will of a newly arrived French KFOR brigade. Welch says several Serbs fired shots at the French peacekeepers. KFOR traced a car used by the attackers to the Serbian National Council.

Keats says UN administrators are disturbed that ethnic tensions remain high in Mitrovica despite the ouster last October of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. It has been almost two years since NATO launched air strikes on Yugoslavia to bring an end to Milosevic's crackdown against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

"Mr. Welch says the attacks in the little Bosnia neighborhood, the premeditated killing, and the attacks on international peacekeepers, are all proof that there are those intent on provoking violence for their own political ends."

Meanwhile, UN officials say they are bracing for the possibility of more trouble ahead of an anniversary on Saturday of the killing of six ethnic Albanians in their homes by Serbs.

Welch says more violence also is likely if there are more deaths among the ethnic Albanians who were critically injured in Monday's grenade attack.

Mitrovica's de facto partition into a mostly Serb north and a mostly ethnic Albanian south began during NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999 when thousands of ethnic Albanians fled both parts of the city to escape a campaign of violence by Serb paramilitaries.

As ethnic Albanians started returning to Mitrovica in June 1999, they found that much of city to the south of the Ibar River had been gutted in a systematic campaign of arson and pillaging.

Those ethnic Albanians who had lived to the north of the Ibar River found passage to their former homes blocked by Serbian paramilitaries who operated an organized but unofficial blockade of the Ibar River bridges.

Those ethnic Albanians who managed to reach the north under a KFOR escort often found their homes occupied by Serbs who had abandoned their own south-side dwellings to escape retaliation attacks.

NATO leaders initially said there would be no de facto partition of Mitrovica. But within weeks of NATO's arrival in Kosovo, French troops were operating their own checkpoints on Mitrovica's bridges to prevent large groups of ethnic Albanians from crossing into the Serb-dominated north.

Northern Mitrovica is the largest enclave of Serbs remaining in Kosovo. Many ethnic Albanians view the French KFOR checkpoints as protection for militant Serbs -- and they are directing their anger toward the international peacekeepers.

In yesterday's demonstrations, ethnic Albanians torched five empty KFOR armored personnel carriers while French peacekeepers in riot gear prevented the crowd from crossing a bridge to the north.

The KFOR troops soon found themselves trapped between 1,000 angry ethnic Albanians and about 200 Serbs who had gathered on the north side of the river to taunt the demonstrators.

As a result of the clashes, KFOR announced an overnight curfew in parts of Mitrovica. KFOR Commander Lieutenant General Carlo Cabigiosu says British, German, Italian, and Scandinavian reinforcements are being deployed today in order to support the French peacekeepers. Speaking in Pristina today, Cabigiosu said:

"I have this morning started an action to bring together all the political leaders of Serbs and Albanians to take their responsibility in trying to calm down the situation. I asked also the Serb representative in Mitrovica to publicly declare their regret about the incident that led to the death of the young Albanian boy."

KFOR spokesman Colonel Jean Pierre Beaulieu told RFE/RL today that there were no major incidents overnight. Beaulieu said the overnight curfew will remain in place until the situation has calmed.