Serbia + 1 more

Peacekeepers clash with Albanian in Kosovo

By Andrew Gray

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia, Feb 4 (Reuters) - NATO-led peacekeepers fired tear gas in the Kosovo town of Mitrovica on Friday to disperse ethnic Albanians angry at a night of violence which left five people dead and about 20 wounded.

French and Italian troops sought to quell the crowd after some people threw rocks at them on the Albanian-dominated southern side of the ethnically divided town.

About five peacekeepers were wounded, one with a broken arm, in the clashes, French forces said. The dead were all ethnic Albanians, while 15 of the wounded were Serbs.

It was the latest eruption of violence in the flashpoint city, the third largest in Kosovo.

The French general in charge of the area said he would impose a three-night curfew on Mitrovica to bring calm.

"The situation is so tense that security comes before all else," General Pierre de Saqui de Sannes told reporters.

People in the crowd lobbed rocks and bottles for about half an hour while the peacekeepers, wearing riot shields and body armour, loosed tear gas rounds in efforts to restore calm.

The situation finally calmed down with the arrival of the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC), a force formed to provide a new role for ex-ethnic Albanian guerrillas who fought Serbian rule.

The French general acknowledged crowd control was not part of the remit of the KPC, which was established as an emergency relief organisation, but he defended working with it. "I need partners who have authority," he said on arrival at the bridge dividing the town as KPC officers were settling down the crowd.

Some protesters accused KFOR of failing to protect the small community of Albanians in the northern, Serb-dominated sector of Mitrovica, where violence had erupted the previous night.

As one of Kosovo's few cities still with a substantial Serb population, Mitrovica has been volatile since the KFOR peacekeeping force and U.N. civil administrators took charge of Kosovo after a Serbian military and police pullout in mid-1999.


The Albanian community leader in Mitrovica earlier called on KFOR to take measures to protect Albanians, including a curfew.

"Our request is to send more soldiers into the northern part (of Mitrovica) because the real problem is in the northern part," Bajram Rexhepi told reporters.

Ethnic Albanians have demanded unlimited access to pre-war homes and property in north Mitrovica but KFOR has restricted it, fearing all-out violence could result.

A spokesman for the French peacekeepers who control the city said the trouble had flared on Thursday evening when an attacker threw a grenade at a Serb cafe. Around the same time, two ethnic Albanians were found shot dead.

The French spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Chanliau, said around 500 Serbs had gathered in northern Mitrovica after the grenade attack and clashed with ethnic Albanians.

Several properties were also set on fire.

The violence on Thursday night came the day after a rocket attack on a United Nations bus in the Mitrovica region which killed two Serbs and wounded three more, aggravating tensions between Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority and Serb minority.

The bus, operated by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, was taking about 50 Serbs from Mitrovica to a Serb enclave.

Many Kosovo Serbs now live in such KFOR-protected enclaves, having fled their homes in fear of assault by ethnic Albanians intent on revenge for years of Serbian repression. Hashim Thaqi, former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), blamed Thursday night's violence on a "Serb terrorist group" and said a sustainable solution was needed for Mitrovica.

Yugoslavia's state Tanjug news agency said "ethnic Albanian terrorists" had attacked the Serb cafe. It said the violence showed that "chaos, lawlessness and anarchy" reigned in Kosovo.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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