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Ethnic Rioting Eases in Flashpoint Kosovo City

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KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia (Reuters) - The flashpoint Kosovo city of Mitrovica was calm early on Tuesday after Western peacekeepers fought to prevent an outbreak of ethnic violence.

The NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force on Tuesday said the streets had been calm overnight after running battles between troops and ethnic Albanian demonstrators seeking to reach Kosovo's largest remaining Serb enclave on Monday.

''After the dispersion of the crowd, the night was very calm,'' said Lieutenant Francis Megerlin, a spokesman for the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force in Mitrovica.

The clashes had erupted after tens of thousands of Albanians, many of whom had marched from the provincial capital Pristina, converged in front of the main bridge dividing the northern industrial city along ethnic lines.

NATO leaders blamed the clashes on Yugoslavia and warned it against touching off a new ethnic conflict beyond the province's borders.

British, Canadian and French troops fired tear gas and fought with their bare hands to stop hundreds of Albanians who tried to storm the bridge to get into the Serb-dominated part of the city.

After several hours of clashes, the situation calmed and the protesters dispersed peacefully, the troops said.

The clashes were the latest in a series of violent eruptions in Mitrovica this month in which at least nine people have been killed and more than 20 wounded, including two French soldiers injured in gun battles.

The city has been the tensest in postwar Kosovo. Albanians from northern Mitrovica area angry that Serbs are preventing them from returning to the homes they fled in fear of Serb repression last year.

The Serbs say they have grouped together in the north for their own protection, having been driven out of many other parts of Kosovo by ethnic Albanian revenge attacks.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in New York on Monday that trouble in Mitrovica was being fomented by the Yugoslav government, which was forced by NATO bombing last year to surrender control of Kosovo.

''The problem here comes from Belgrade,'' Washington's former Balkans troubleshooter told reporters.

''This is not a simple question of local Serbs who are all stirred up north of the bridge. This is being stirred up by the MUP (Yugoslav Interior Ministry), by the Yugoslav authorities -- and the Yugoslav leadership is directly responsible for this,'' he said.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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