Albanians celebrate freedom

PRISTINA, Serbia, Jan 1, 2000 -- (AFP) Thousands of ethnic Albanians flocked into Kosovo's capital Pristina Saturday to celebrate a New Year free of Yugoslav troops, while families of Albanians imprisoned in Belgrade called for their release.

City inhabitants had erected a stage in front of the national theatre, from where families of those who have been imprisoned by Serbia or disappeared launched an appeal to the Belgrade government for their return.

Bernard Kouchner, head of the UN administration which has run Kosovo since a NATO bombing campaign forced Yugoslav troops out of the province in June, promised he would do everything in his power to get a reply from Belgrade.

Amid falling snow, young ethnic Albanians celebrated the province's relative freedom from Yugoslavia.

"Last year it was dreadful, we could not go out. The Serbs were treating us like animals," said Ilir, 22.

Earlier Friday, Kouchner traveled to the divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica to urge the town's Serb and Albanian residents to live in harmony.

"Believe me, Mitrovica will be a unified town ... but give us time," Kouchner told residents in remarks on the bridge which divides the Serbian and Albanian areas and which has been a frequent scene of clashes between the two communities.

But Serbs and Albanians laughed off his plea.

"I don't believe him when he talks about reuniting the town," said Petar, a 21-year-old Serb.

"You just have to look at what he has done for us until now, he keeps breaking resolution 1244," he said, referring to the UN security council resolution that promised substantial autonomy to Kosovo, but within Yugoslavia.

Albanian passerby Mexhat Adani said Albanians had "a lot of hope" in Kouchner, but did not want Serbs to stay in the town.

"They do not deserve (to stay), not after all the crimes they have committed," he said.

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