By Llazar Semini in Pristina (BCR No. 113, 5-Feb-00)
Recent clashes in Mitrovica, leaving several Serbs and Albanians dead and scores wounded, could hardly have come at a worse time.
Following a rocket attack Wednesday, February 2 on a UN bus, which left two elderly Serbs dead and five wounded, revenge attacks and violent demonstrations resulted in the deaths of a half dozen Albanians and destruction of Albanian-owned properties, the bombing of a Serbian café injuring a dozen people, and the burning of several UN vehicles, with several KFOR troops suffering minor injuries.
Following rival demonstrations Friday, February 4, on opposite sides of the river dividing the largely Serbian northern part of town with the Albanian southern half, which resulted in further injuries, an 8 PM to 5 AM curfew has been imposed.
With the UN pressing to launch a Joint Interim Administrative Council involving local leaders in governing the province, the violence will only further undermine confidence on both sides in the international presence and any institutions it seeks to establish.
Announced only days ago, the Joint Administration initiative was handicapped by the resistance both of rival Albanian leaders, hesitant about any power-sharing, and of Serb leaders who cited security concerns and the failure of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) to establish conditions for the return of Serbs who fled the province after the end of the NATO bombing.
Yet UN officials were optimistic that representatives from both sides were moving towards full participation. Meantime, with Kosovo enjoying a relative lull in violence, UN head Bernard Kouchner was travelling in Japan, to raise sorely need funds for the cash-strapped administration.
Shattering the recent calm, the recent violence is likely to set back efforts to build new joint institutions, and build confidence.
While Koucher cut short his fund-raising tour, UN spokesperson Susan Manuel described the flare-up as a "terrifying and appalling increase" in inter-ethnic violence.
Serbs and Albanians, meantime, traded mutual accusations over the causes of the bloodshed, while faith on both sides in the UN, KFOR and other international institutions plummeted.
A Kosovo Serb representative, Jovica Jovanovic, said the attacks were part of "continued attempts by ethnic Albanian terrorists to cleanse Kosovo of Serbs. The attitude by the United Nations mission here only encourages more crime.''
Albanian leaders, meantime, accused "Serb paramilitary terrorists" of sparking the incidents.
Local Albanian media said that six buses loaded with Serb paramilitaries, many of whom known for their crimes during last year's ethnic cleansing, arrived in the Mitrovica area earlier this week. The newspapers added that some 500 Serbs who attacked their co-patriots were headed by the local police chief.
UN officials, for their part, are furious over the attack on the UNHCR bus, which was travelling through predominantly Albanian areas escorted by two French KFOR armoured vehicles.
The incident was "a clear attack on UNHCR," said Dennis McNamara, UNHCR special envoy to Kosovo. "That's very demoralising for us, having spent so much time with these people, the refugees we brought back, the work we've done in Kosovo."
After the bus attack, and the grenade explosion the next day in a coffee bar patronised by Serbs, hundreds of Serbs the north side of the town, equipped with weapons and iron bars went on a rampage, breaking into Albanian homes with grenade and explosive attacks. At least six Albanians were killing, and more than 20 injured.
According to UNHCR spokeswoman Paula Ghendini, an estimated up to 4,500 Albanians living in the predominantly Serb northern part of the town tried to flee.
On Friday, French and Italian police used tear gas to disperse a crowd of Albanians trying to cross the fenced bridge on Iber river, allegedly to defend their relatives on the other side. A few policemen and protesters were wounded.
The protesters dispersed only after troops of the Kosovo Protection Force, a newly formed military-civilian institution, arrived.
In a separate incident earlier this week a Russian KFOR soldier accompanying Serb children to school was shot in the chest and seriously wounded.
Western politicians and international institutions appealed to both sides to "to refrain from violence and revengeful acts".
KFOR commander General Klaus Reinhardt deplored the rocket attack, and expressed concern that continuing violence could deter Western donors from helping rebuild the province.
"This is just the most inhuman attack you can imagine. We did not believe that people would take some action on a bus running with only civilians," he told reporters.
Deploring the "extraordinarily vicious outbreak of attacks on civilians," UN spokesperson Manuel warned that "such hatred threatens to derail the progress the people of Kosovo have made in so many areas of their lives."
The Joint Administrative Council appealed to all the population as well as leaders on both sides "to refrain from further violence and revengeful acts and collaborate with UNMIK police and KFOR . . . to find ways to prevent a further escalation of the violence," according to UNMIK principle deputy Jock Covey.
Yet local leaders responded with accusations against the international administration.
"Unfortunately there were killings and wounding, but there was also negligence by KFOR and UNMIK forces for a final solution of Mitrovica problem," said Hashim Thaci, former head of the interim Kosovo government and of the Kosovo Liberation Army.
Local media reported many complaints from Albanians in Mitrovica who accused French troops of not protecting them when attacked by Serb crowds.
The divisions such as in Mitrovica inhibit economic as well as political developments in Kosovo. The nearby Trepce mine, for example, is still not functioning in part because half of it lies in predominantly Albanian area, and half in an area populated mainly by Serbs.
Meantime, while KFOR brought in more troops, established a curfew and declared the situation under control, spokesperson Ghendini said that UNHCR had suspended its operations in the northern part of the town.
Llazar Semini is IWPR Project Manager in Kosovo.