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Kosovo: World Vision staff attacked as Mitrovica boils...

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"This war is far from over...," locals say...
By Rod Curtis, WV Kosovo Senior Communications Officer

Two World Vision vehicles were attacked and shot at as the ethnically-divided northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica erupted in violence late last week.

World Vision Mitrovica Site Manager Rudy Scholaert, of Canada, was traveling from the ethnic Albanian area south of the Galbonne River to the World Vision team house in the predominantly Serb north, when the attack occurred at about 9.30 pm Thursday. A mob of 500 angry Serbs surrounded his vehicle, hit and kicked it, and fired four pistol shots at him as he sped away. "I saw one man pull a small pistol out as I was about 50 meters away," Mr Schoelart said. "He was definitely shooting at me and I'm glad to say he missed."

Mr Scholaert rushed home, informed KFOR to close the bridge, and radioed all World Vision staff to inform them of the danger. Meanwhile, Community Services worker Vito Castelo-Branco, of Mozambique, had already driven into the same crowd, when his vehicle was attacked and his windscreen smashed. Both Mr Scholaert and Mr Castelo-Branco were shaken but escaped unharmed.

Gunfire and explosions continued around the World Vision staff house until about 1am, and WV radio contacts were interrupted during the night by Serb-speaking people claiming to be UNMIK police.

Today, World Vision evacuated all non-essential expatriate staff from Mitrovica to Pristina. The staff house on the north side was emptied of all equipment which was taken to the WV Transit Center on the south side. All non-essential national staff were sent home. A skeletal staff remains, and four DAF trucks are on standby if large movements of goods are needed. World Vision has made its vehicles available to UNHCR who had two vehicles destroyed and one damaged overnight.

Mr Scholaert will spend the evening in the Transit Center, which could house up to 300 Albanian evacuees who are currently living in small pockets on the north side of the bridge. The WV Transit Center has already received one Albanian family who have fled from the north side, and will accept all people in the north who voluntarily want to be extricated.

The situation began earlier in the evening when a Serb café on the north side of the bridge was hit by a grenade attack, wounding 15 people. In revenge attacks and counter-attacks throughout the night, at least two Albanians were killed and dozens wounded. The offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross were burned, and up to 15 NGO/UNHCR vehicles smashed, burned or shot at. Today, at least two Rocket Propelled Grenades have been fired north of the bridge.

French KFOR troops were pulled off "bridge duty" today after reportedly becoming targets themselves. The UNMIK police have also evacuated from the north side. KFOR has responded by implementing a curfew from 8pm until 5am beginning tonight and increasing its presence two-fold. In a show of force, heavy tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers are lining the streets, choppers are flying constantly overhead and troops are on full-alert.

The tensions in Mitrovica have been slowly building all week. On Wednesday, a UNHCR bus transporting Serbs from Mitrovica to a neighboring Serb village was attacked with an anti-tank missile, killing two and wounding seven. On Thursday, four surface-to-air missiles were fired from the south side across the river at a hospital on the north side.

Last week, KFOR were delighted to report the quietest week they have had in security terms since they entered Kosovo in June. This week, KFOR troops are on full-alert as tensions spill over into outright violence.

Mr Scholaert maintained today that the attacks on the vehicles were not specifically directed at World Vision, but was a case of being "in the wrong place at the wrong time". He said World Vision had gone over its evacuation plan with KFOR, and "there is a possibility all expatriate staff in Mitrovica from all organizations will have to evacuate".

WV's Pristina office is on standby with food packets for large numbers of potential IDP's. WV's Mitrovica, Pristina, Prizren and Gjilan offices are reassessing their security plans in light of this week's incidents, ensuring evacuation plans and routes.