Kosovo ex-guerrillas blame Serb gangs for violence

PRISTINA, Feb 17, 2000 -- (Reuters) Former Kosovo Albanian guerrillas on Wednesday blamed recent violence in the city of Mitrovica on Serb "terrorist gangs" they said were controlled by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Hashim Thaci, political leader of the officially disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, said the violence seen in the ethnically divided city could spread to other parts of Kosovo unless international authorities got a grip on the problem.

The successor force to the KLA, the civilian Kosovo Protection Corps, called on Albanians to show restraint but also stressed the right of people to defend themselves.

"The source of all this violence are Milosevic's gangs and if the international community wants to stop the violence, it has to stop the source as soon as possible," General Agim Ceku, the protection corps commander, said in a statement.

Kosovo Serb leaders have accused the KLA of responsibility for violence in the Mitrovica region this month, which has left at least 11 people dead and more than 20 wounded.

The KLA leaders, who fought a guerrilla campaign against Serb rule for more than a year before NATO bombing drove Serb forces out of Kosovo, have denied involvement in any violence.

Mitrovica has been generally quiet since the most recent eruption of violence on Sunday. But French forces which patrol the region said several rockets were fired at a shop in the Serb-dominated north of the city on Wednesday evening.

The attack took just after the 6 p.m. start of a night curfew imposed after the violence. There were no reports of any injuries, a KFOR spokesman said.

Western talks

Thaci, now leader of a political party supported by many former KLA members and commanders, and other Kosovo leaders held talks on Wednesday with senior Foreign Ministry officials from big Western powers on the Mitrovica situation.

Thaci said he had been assured by the officials from the so-called "quint" group of the United States, Germany, France, Britain and Italy that they would accept no division of Kosovo.

Many ethnic Albanians fear Serbs aim to partition Kosovo by controlling northern Mitrovica and the surrounding mineral-rich area, which stretches back to the Serbian provincial boundary.

Serbs say they have grouped together to form a postwar majority in northern Mitrovica simply for their own safety, having been forced to flee from elsewhere in Kosovo by attacks from ethnic Albanians seeking revenge for Serb repression.

Thaci said the onus was on Kosovo's United Nations-led administration to tackle the problem of Mitrovica's division.

"It is paramount that the institutions be more active to solve the situation in Mitrovica, otherwise they will have to face bigger problems," he told Albania's Koha Jone newspaper.

Ceku, who was KLA chief of staff, expressed confidence in the U.N. and the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force, which had two French soldiers wounded in gunbattles on Sunday.

"It's time to show self-restraint and vigilance, but always preserving the legitimate right to self-defense," he said.

Albanians insist members of their community who took up arms on Sunday were only protecting the Albanian minority in northern Mitrovica from Serb attacks. Serbs say it was Albanians who began attacking, trying to drive Serbs out.

KFOR has said it is still investigating the exact sequence of events and has not blamed any specific group.

Original article