The Age
Tension over Albanian relocation plan

Friday 25 February 2000

Mitrovica (AP/RTR) - Serbs in this ethnically divided town are threatening to protest against plans by NATO-led peacekeepers to begin resettling ethnic Albanians in the Serb-dominated northern part of town.

The NATO plans involve moving ethnic Albanians back to three high-rise apartment buildings on the Serb-controlled north bank of the Ibar River.

United Nations officials said the relocation of ethnic Albanians would begin next week.

NATO also plans to build a footbridge across the river in front of the three apartment houses where many Albanians hope to return. Demonstrations would be banned in Serb and Albanian-dominated neighborhoods.

But the proposals have outraged Serb leaders, who, despite the ban, have called for a protest on the north side of the bridge. Mr Oliver Ivanovic has warned that the crisis in Kosovo's most multi-ethnic city would "peak within 10 to 15 days" unless the NATO-led Kosovo Force abandons its plans.

The city's ethnic Albanian leader, Mr Bajram Rexhepi, called on his fellow Albanians not to demonstrate on the south bank.

Serb leaders say they were not consulted about NATO's decision.

Mr Ivanovic accused the ethnic Albanians of "building up tensions to the maximum so they would use the situation to provoke bloodshed in the northern part of the city".

He insisted that no Yugoslav security forces had infiltrated the city, despite NATO claims that Belgrade was stage-managing the recent violence.

A sweep by United States paratroopers in the north on Wednesday also upset the Serbs, who said their homes were ransacked.

As French troops surrounded the search area, about 300 soldiers of the US 504th Airborne Infantry crossed the Ibar River and swept through "Little Bosnia", an ethnically mixed neighborhood, searching house-to-house for weapons.

A NATO spokesman said the Americans seized a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, rifles, grenades and ammunition. Eight people were taken into custody.

It was the second time the Americans had been on the north side since they and German forces were driven away on Sunday by stone-throwing Serbs during a weapons search. On Monday they were forced to break off a search because of the violent demonstration.

NATO, meanwhile, said its military strength in Kosovo was insufficient and France said it would send up to 700 fresh troops to Mitrovica to help combat a surge in violence. A spokesman said there were only 30,000 troops in the province out of 49,000 originally planned for the peacekeeping mission.

Original article