French troops to remain in Kosovo town, says Richard

SARAJEVO, Feb 12, 2000 -- (Reuters) French Defence Minister Alain Richard said on Friday that French troops would remain the lead contingent of the KFOR peacekeeping force in the strife-torn Kosovo city of Mitrovica.

Richard was speaking in Sarajevo as British troops took over from French soldiers guarding the main bridge between Serb-and Albanian-dominated sectors of the divided town.

The changeover on Thursday followed accusations that French peacekeepers failed to protect Albanians during a chaotic night of ethnic violence in Mitrovica last week. Eight Kosovo Albanians were killed and more than 20 people, mostly Serbs, were injured.

"We cannot speak of a real replacement of the French troops there," Richard told a news conference in Sarajevo.

He added that only several units of "our British friends" had arrived to support French troops in the volatile town.

"We have considered it would be better to have other contingents if they are trained for that kind of situation to take part with us," he said.

Stone-throwing Albanians clashed with French peacekeepers on the bridge for several days running after the killings.

Richard declined to comment on accusations against the French, but he said that it was in the collective interest not to leave French troops alone in such a situation.

A French official in Paris said the French commander in the region had asked for the British troops simply to give his own soldiers a rest after days of constant pressure.

Before NATO's 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, ethnic Albanians formed the majority in both halves of Mitrovica. During the 11-week air war, however, Serbs gathered in the north of the city as Albanians fled from Yugoslav Serb security forces.

Serbs have since established de facto control of northern Mitrovica, now the biggest concentration of Serbs left in Kosovo, whose population is well over 90 percent Albanian.

Tens of thousands of other Serbs have fled Kosovo since NATO-led peacekeepers replaced Yugoslav security forces, fearing reprisals from returning ethnic Albanians.

The Mitrovica Serbs say they are only seeking safety in numbers. But Albanians suspect a plot to ensure mineral-rich northern Kosovo remains part of Serbia even if the rest of the province becomes independent.

Thousands of ethnic Albanians held a protest in the nearby town of Vucitrn on Friday, waving placards saying "No peace in Kosovo without freedom for Mitrovica" and "No partition".

Kosovo Serbs in Zvecan, north of Mitrovica, held a protest of their own against ethnic Albanian violence.

Original article