Furious Kosovo Serbs demand protection
KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia, Feb 8, 2000 -- (Reuters) Furious Kosovo Serbs demanded the return of Serb and Yugoslav forces on Monday after an eruption of violence in and around the flashpoint city of Mitrovica.
Speakers at a protest rally in the Serb-dominated northern half of Mitrovica railed against ethnic Albanians and international authorities and demanded better protection.
Their calls came after one of the most serious outbreaks of violence since NATO-led peacekeepers and the United Nations moved into the province last June, following the withdrawal of Serb forces driven out by NATO bombing.
One speaker at the rally singled out Bernard Kouchner, the head of Kosovo's U.N.-led administration, for criticism.
"Kouchner has made a ghetto for Serbs," Milan Ivanovic, a local doctor and community leader, told a crowd of around 2,000 people. "Serbs here feel the same as the Jews in Auschwitz."
A rocket attack on a U.N. bus carrying Serbs marked the start of the violent upsurge last Wednesday. Two Serbs were killed and three were wounded.
The following night violence erupted in northern Mitrovica. A Serb bar was targeted in a grenade attack which wounded 15 people. Serbs went on a rampage of shootings, grenade attacks and arson which killed at least eight people.
Albanians say all the dead were members of their community while international officials say two were ethnic Turks.
Leader appears to praise revenge
Vuko Antonijevic, the president of Mitrovica's Serb National Council of local leaders, appeared to praise local Serbs for the violent reaction to attacks on them.
"You responded in the best way," he told the crowd.
Peacekeepers in Kosovo's French-led military sector have imposed a night curfew to clamp down on the violence, which they say has been generally respected. They have also brought troops from other areas into the city.
Over the past few days, Albanians have clashed with peacekeepers on the southern side of the bridge which separates the two areas, accusing them of not doing enough to protect the small Albanian population in the northern half.
Hundreds of Albanians in the north have been transported to the southern side over the past few days amid fears for their safety. The U.N. refugee agency said it had reports of some families being given an ultimatum by Serbs to leave the north.
Serbs want own protection corps
Serbs at the rally insisted they were the people most in need of protection.
They called for the establishment of their own protection corps and more recruits to a group they call "bridgekeepers," who patrol the northern side of the main bridge.
They say they are there simply to prevent trouble. Albanians say they prevent members of their community who lived in northern Mitrovica from returning to their homes.
Oliver Ivanovic, the head of the Council's executive community and widely seen as the key Serb leader in the city, scoffed at an Albanian suggestion that British troops should come to Mitrovica to improve security.
"We have our own suggestion. We suggest having the VJ here," he said, referring to the Yugoslav army by its initials.
Ivanovic acknowledged the suggestion was unlikely to be accepted by the international community. NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia was carried out to stop the persecution of Kosovo's Albanian majority by Serb security forces.
Ivanovic played down the more extreme statements made by other speakers at the rally.
"They have not any kind of political experience. They're talking for the crowd and it's not good," he said.