Nato troops break up ethnic Albanian marchBy Elena Becatoros
MITROVICA, Yugoslavia, Feb. 21 - Thousands of ethnic Albanians broke through a cordon of NATO-led peacekeepers who were trying to prevent them from entering this ethnically divided town today.
Protesters reached the main bridge in the center of Kosovska Mitrovica, which divides the Serbs from the ethnic Albanians. Hundreds of Albanian flags were flying on the southern, Albanian side of the bridge. Some Serbs who had gathered on the northern side of the bridge began to flee, while others fought to reinforce their positions.
The French brought in reinforcements and armored vehicles as peacekeepers fired tear gas to hold off the protesters.
Earlier today, NATO suspended in some areas a massive house-to-house weapons search that was launched early Sunday in response to weeks of violence.
KFOR had to take some of its soldiers away to provide security for these demonstrations, said Lt. Cmdr. Philip Anido, a NATO spokesman in Pristina, adding that the suspension was only temporary and the search would carry on.
U.N. police and NATO-led troops accompanied the demonstrators, who were heading from the provincial capital, Pristina, on a 25-mile march to Kosovska Mitrovica.
U.S. military vehicles and soldiers lined the side road leading into the center of the town. Marchers had been banned from entering for security reasons.
As the march made its way north, hundreds of people from villages and towns along the route joined in the protest. Others set up along the roadside, loaded with food and drinks for the marchers.
No to Partition of Kosovo and Without Mitrovica there is no Kosovo read banners carried by demonstrators. Other marchers carried Albanian and American flags.
With this peaceful march we want to make it clear to the whole world that (Kosovska) Mitrovica cannot be partitioned, because it means very much for all the people of Kosovo, said Jeton Balaj, 24, a student participating in the march.
A Flashpoint for Ethnic Tensions
Many Albanians fear the ethnic division between the Serb-controlled north and majority ethnic Albanian south sides of the town could eventually lead to the northern side being given to Serbs altogether.
The northern industrial town, has been a flashpoint for ethnic tensions since the peacekeeping force entered Kosovo in June.
Most recently, nine people were killed and dozens injured in ethnic violence that followed a rocket attack on a U.N. bus that killed two Serb civilians on Feb. 2. French troops, who are permanently stationed in the town, have been criticized by U.N. police and ethnic Albanians for failing to provide security for Albanians living on the Serb side.
The number of weapons seized Sunday was modest considering the more than 2,300 peacekeepers deployed in the search operation. Peacekeepers found dozens of automatic rifles, several plastic explosives and a large amount of ammunition.
Arrests and Injuries
Ten Albanians and one Serb were arrested Sunday, Anido said. One Serb and one Albanian remained in custody Monday, he said.
Two American peacekeepers were slightly injured Sunday when angry Serbs pelted them with stones and bricks, who accused them of aggressive behavior in house-to-house searches. At least three Serbs were also reportedly injured.
Serb officials complained bitterly about alleged acts of violence and intimidation committed by the U.S. troops. Americans were smashing doors, destroying furniture. There was no reason for such behavior, said Oliver Ivanovic, a local Serb leader.
Capt. Russel Berg, an American deputy public affairs officer, defended the troops and military police as very disciplined.
There was no action on the part of the American soldiers warranting tension with the Serbs, he said.