Serbs' protests over the reopening of the Ibar bridge in Mitrovica let up as UN envoy prepares to assess progress in Kosovo.
MITROVICA and PRISTINA, Kosovo - After weeks of blockade and stone-throwing, the sound of a loud Serbian nationalist song coming from the northern part of Mitrovica is the only sign of protest against the reopening of the bridge over the River Ibar, which has divided the city since the end of the war in June 1999.
On 6 June, Kosovo's UN administration (UNMIK) opened the bridge for civilian vehicles for the first time since the war. The move triggered Serbian protests aimed at discouraging ethnic Albanians from crossing. Groups of Serbs blocked the bridge on 13 June and stone-throwing and fist fights broke out on 19 June, with three people arrested.
Once intermingled on both banks of the river, the population of this mining and industrial city in the far north of Kosovo is now divided along strict ethnic lines, with Serbs in the north and Albanians in the south.
Even though the opening hours of the bridge have been extended from one hour to 12 hours daily, the number of protesters has dropped over the past week.
But Kosovo Serb leaders maintain that the opening of the bridge represents a security threat for the Serbs.
"The protest has come as a result of a dangerous, one-sided, pro-Albanian decision by UNMIK chief [Soren] Jessen-Petersen, who despite the lack of safety for the Serbs, ordered free movement across the bridge for Albanian extremists," local media quoted Milan Ivanovic, the head of Serbian National Council in Kosovo, as saying.
According to UNMIK, the decision to open the bridge to civilian vehicles reflects significant improvements in the ability of Kosovo's people to move about freely.
"The security situation has been improved in the past months, but there are still steps required to build trust between the communities," UNMIK spokesperson Neeraj Singh told TOL.
Such trust is difficult to build in a place like Mitrovica, where in the past six years the Ibar bridge has been a scene of numerous violent protests on both sides.
"I still fear going to the other side to visit my relatives. I will wait some time to make sure nothing bad happens," said Shukrane, a 46-year-old Albanian woman.
Just off the bridge's northern side, a few Albanian families live in nearby flats. They are among the very few ethnic Albanians in the north of Mitrovica today. This is practically the only place in northern Mitrovica where one can see Kosovo vehicle registrations.
Unlike other Serbian enclaves in Kosovo, the Serbs from Mitrovica and the territories further north toward the border of Serbia proper are reluctant to accept documents issued by UNMIK or Kosovo's own authorities. Vehicles in the north often have no registration at all. Albanians sometimes claim that some of those vehicles were stolen from them.
The separation of the city took place immediately after the NATO air campaign against Serbia in 1999. Serbs from the south of the city, but also from other places of Kosovo, moved to northern Mitrovica, while the Albanians who had lived in that part of the city were not allowed to return to their homes, which most had left during the war.
Serb property in the south and Albanian property in the north was quickly usurped and the segregation was completed in a matter of days, with the Ibar as an unofficial border between the two communities.
The Mitrovica Albanians lost access to the city hospital and university, both located in the north, while the Serbs could not access public services in the south. With Albanian cemeteries in the north and Serbian in the south, both sides relied on the peacekeeping KFOR troops to escort them to the graves of their loved ones.
Incidents, protests, and violent clashes were now almost a daily occurrence in Kosovo's third biggest city.
In February 2000, violent clashes in the north of Mitrovica left nine people dead and 20 wounded, Serbs and Albanians alike.
In April 2002, 22 UN police officers were wounded in an attack by Serbs from the north using firearms and hand grenades. An extremist group called the Bridge Watchers, which sought to keep the north of the city under Serbian control, claimed responsibility for the attack.
In August 2002, an international judge issued a warrant for local Serbian leader Ivanovic's arrest on charges of attempted murder in connection with these violent demonstrations. He was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison, but was later released.
In December 2003, local Serbs attacked Kosovo's then prime minister, Bajram Rexhepi, who was having lunch in the north of the city with representatives of the World Bank. The party's UN vehicles were set on fire and Rexhepi, a native of Mitrovica, and his guests had hard time escaping over the bridge to the south.
But the most serious incidents took place in March last year. They were triggered by the drowning of three Albanian children in the Ibar. Some leaders on the Albanian side claimed the children were chased into the river by local Serbs with dogs. Police did not confirm the allegation.
The violent protests, which first erupted in Mitrovica on the Ibar bridge, quickly spread through the whole of Kosovo, leaving 19 dead, hundreds injured, as well as many Serbian houses and churches burnt or devastated. Hundreds of Serbs became internally displaced persons, many for the second time. Some Serbs sought refuge at KFOR bases.
The city of Mitrovica remained the most difficult challenge for the international community. Over the past six years, UNMIK often tried but failed to establish an effective control over northern Kosovo. North Mitrovica also became a breeding ground for Serbian hardliners such as Bridge Watchers, who even maintained vehicle checkpoints.
The Serbs in northern Mitrovica established parallel security, judicial, and public-health structures linked to those from Serbia. In a 2003 report on the situation in northern Kosovo, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stated that two Serbian security organizations operated there: the Bridge Watchers and the regular police of the Serbian Interior Ministry. The report also established that KFOR troops and UN police were prevented from operating in the area.
Recently, though, the security situation has changed. The initiative for the reopening of the bridge came shortly after the appointment of Kai Eide as the UN envoy in charge of assessing progress in preparation for talks on determining the province's final status later this year. Kosovo's local authorities were set the task of meeting a set of UN-designed standards on security, human rights, and good governance before any such talks could begin.
Kosovo is required in particular to make progress in the rule of law, and that's exactly where the international community has registered progress recently.
"The rule of law in Kosovo has really improved, the situation is more stable than in the previous years," said UNMIK spokesperson Singh.
On 6 June, UN police handed over control in the Mitrovica region to multiethnic units of the Kosovo Police Service (KPS).
"Crime has gone down 15 percent compared to last year," KPS spokesperson Refki Morina told TOL.
Morina stressed that crimes with presumed ethnic motives have also decreased.
UN Special Envoy Eide is expected to complete his report on the situation in Kosovo in about two months. The report will focus on the development of the political process, relations between ethnic communities, and the process of decentralization. If the report is positive, it will pave the way for talks on Kosovo's final status.
The status talks are likely to begin in late September this year, possibly under the auspices of the European Union and with strong U.S. involvement. Austrian diplomat Wolfgang Petritsch, who is a former high representative to Bosnia and who played a role in previous negotiations on Kosovo, is often seen as the strongest candidate to chair such talks.
But the talks will only start if Eide's report is positive. "The implementation of standards is just one component. I will also carry out a wider evaluation of the situation in Kosovo, as requested by [UN Secretary General Kofi] Annan," Eide said in Pristina in June.
"I will travel around Kosovo to see different regions and listen to people, so that I can get the best possible picture of what is happening in the field," the Norwegian diplomat said.
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