Peacekeepers clash with Albanians in Kosovo

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia, Feb 6, 2000 -- (Reuters) NATO-led peacekeepers clashed with ethnic Albanians for the second day running on Saturday in an upsurge of violence in Kosovo.

Witnesses said French peacekeeping troops wearing riot shields charged at a crowd of around 1,000 Albanians in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, trying to force back protesters who were hurling rocks and bottles.

One demonstrator was carried away, apparently wounded in the clash that took place by a bridge separating Mitrovica into ethnic Albanian and Serb sectors.

The French used tear gas and heavy percussion grenades against the Albanians - protesting at the recent deaths of members of their community who were apparently killed by Serbs.

French forces said six peacekeepers were slightly injured.

Peacekeeping troops used tear gas to scatter a crowd of ethnic Albanians on Friday as well.

Some protesters have accused the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force of failing to protect the small Albanian community still living in Serb-dominated north Mitrovica.

The situation calmed after the arrival of the Kosovo Protection Corps, a force formed to provide a new role for former ethnic Albanian guerrillas who fought against Serb rule.

"I'm asking you, please, to go because there is no chance to pass through here," regional KPC commander Rahman Rama told members of the crowd, gesturing towards the bridge behind.

"You are doing this side and the Albanians who live on the other side no good," he said.

Death toll rises to seven

The likely death toll from violence on Thursday night rose to seven when police found the body of an elderly ethnic Albanian woman in her apartment. It appeared she had been shot dead on Thursday evening, the United Nations said.

More than 20 people were wounded in Thursday's clashes, which took place mainly in north Mitrovica. Five of the dead were Kosovo Albanians and two were ethnic Turks, international authorities said.

The NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force earlier on Saturday reported calm overnight in Mitrovica, a flashpoint since the peacekeepers and the United Nations took de facto control of Kosovo in June following 11 weeks of NATO air strikes.

KFOR said that a curfew imposed from Friday night after the deadly clashes the previous evening had been generally effective and the night had passed off without major incidents.

Some Albanian families who felt unsafe for the moment in the northern district had been escorted to the southern side, a spokesman for French forces which patrol the city told Reuters.

He said several dozen families had been transferred, but stressed the measure was only temporary and had been carried out at the request of the families concerned.

"We do this on request because we're here to assure security," said the spokesman, Captain Olivier Saint-Leger.

Albanian leaders in the city have warned of the danger that northern Mitrovica could be "ethnically cleansed" of Albanians as a result of the violence.

The clashes followed hard on the heels of a deadly rocket attack on a U.N. bus carrying Serb civilians in the Mitrovica area on Wednesday. Two Serbs were killed and three wounded.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said on Saturday that the level of violence in Kosovo was unacceptable, but people were far better off there than they were a year ago.