Nato on guard against Spring clash in Mitrovica

BRUSSELS, Feb 10, 2000 -- (Reuters) NATO is watching northern Kosovo closely in case Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic seeks a diversion from trouble in Belgrade or Albanian radicals try to fuel further violence, an alliance official said on Wednesday.

The situation in and around the divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica was clearly tense and NATO peacekeepers had been substantially reinforced to help French troops there cope with it, he told reporters at a regular NATO briefing.

"There are radicals in both camps, that is true," the official said. For the moment it appeared to be a case of spontaneous violence among Serbs and ethnic Albanians, triggering rounds of mutual reprisals.

"But we don't want spring to be once again the start of the fighting season," as it has been in the former Yugoslavia over the past decade, the official added.

NATO had to be on its guard against the possibility that Milosevic could provoke a fresh crisis over Mitrovica to divert attention from rising anxieties in Belgrade, where two prominent figures have been assassinated in the past month.

There was no evidence of Belgrade "masterminding" Mitrovica's recent troubles or that former Kosovo Liberation Army dissidents were organizing violence against Serbs.

Eight people have been killed and more than 20 wounded in the violence over the past week.

A NATO diplomat said on Tuesday field reports suggested KLA leaders might have orchestrated the latest wave of attacks.

KLA Moves

"The KLA is certainly trying to precipitate events politically and get rid of some people, both Serbs and moderate ethnic Albanians," the diplomat said.

The violent upsurge is one of the worst since NATO's KFOR peacekeeping mission and the U.N. took over responsibility for the Serbian province last June. It began a week ago with a rocket attack on a U.N. bus which killed two Serbs.

U.N. mission chief Bernard Kouchner has acknowledged that "we are in the middle of a crisis in Mitrovica".

Senior Kosovo Albanian leader Hashim Thaci urged supporters on Tuesday not to seek revenge for recent ethnic violence in the region.

"We will not respond with violence to the institutional Serb violence and terrorism," he told a local rally. But Kosovo Albanians mistrust the French peacekeepers.

Before NATO's bombing last year, Albanians formed the majority in both northern and southern Mitrovica. During the 11-week campaign, however, Serbs gathered in the north as Albanians fled and have now established de facto control.

The NATO official said the alliance would "not allow any new walls to be created...or any kind of creeping partition". NATO remained committed to a unified Kosovo without cantonment.

The Serbs insist they are only seeking safety in numbers. But Kosovo Albanians suspect a plot to ensure mineral-rich northern Kosovo remains forever part of Serbia.

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