UN police fear all-out war in divided Kosovo town

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia, Feb 16, 2000 -- (AFP) U.N. police fear this turbulent Kosovo town could degenerate into all-out war between rival Serbian and ethnic Albanian communities, officers said Tuesday.

The warning came a day after police intercepted a shipment of arms hidden in an ambulance heading for Mitrovica, including a U.S.-made "street sweeper" grenade launcher, described by one officer as "the best thing money can buy on the black market."

"Things are going to get better eventually, but we're going to have a hell of a fight on our hands for a while. People have been allowed to do anything they wanted to," said northern Mitrovica station commander J.D. Luckie.

"Our intelligence sources say weapons are going back and forth" across the river Ibar that divides the Serb-dominated north of the town from the overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian south.

"They're getting ready to fight," he said, warning that other intelligence sources -- which have so far proved reliable -- "say this place is going to be leveled."

Another U.S. officer said he could describe the situation in "two words: combat zone."

Luckie said it was likely that if they had caught one shipment of arms, ten others could have got through.

"That's our experience from fighting drug shipments in the United States," he said.

The officers said the international peacekeeping force KFOR must maintain its heavy presence in the town, beefed up in recent days after sudden outbreaks of violence which have left up to nine people dead.

Luckie said he expected another 200 U.N. police officers to arrive within 48 hours to back up his force of just 51, with a total of 300 officers to arrive from other parts of the Yugoslav province by the end of the month.

He said the reinforcements "should be enough if KFOR leave us alone to do the job we're trained to do."

He said that in a gun battle between peacekeepers and ethnic Albanian snipers on Sunday, KFOR troops tried to prevent him going to the aid of one of his officers caught in crossfire.

He said that often "the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing" in the complex situation of this northern industrial town.

"This is gun toting territory," said Luckie. "We thought the United States had a lot of guns, but back home you don't see too many rockets, grenades or mortars," he said.

Luckie said his intelligence sources had already proved reliable in warning that the situation would deteriorate in February.

At the start of the month a U.N. refugee agency bus, escorted by KFOR, was hit by anti-tank rocket, killing two of the 49 Serb passengers. Two days later, a grenade attack on a Serb cafe sparked mob violence that left some eight ethnic Albanians dead.

On Sunday, after a grenade attack on a house in an Albanian enclave in the north injured seven men, snipers opened fire on French peacekeepers, wounding two.

KFOR later brought them to heel, killing one and injuring two others, KFOR officials said.

One police officer described how U.N. police had rescued two elderly ethnic Albanians -- a man of 73 and a woman of 70 -- from their torched house on Sunday.

He said that two Serb children had told them the nearby crowd of people was waiting for the couple to either burn to death or come out and be killed.

The shipment of arms, stashed in a stolen ambulance found abandoned on Monday, was heading toward Mitrovica when it crashed and its occupants fled.

The police said it contained 13 one-shot grenade launchers, 180 grenades, several thousand bullets and a 40 mm, six-shot grenade launcher, known as "street sweeper" for its effectiveness at 500 meters.

Original article