Kosovo students protest against city's division

PRISTINA, Feb 18, 2000 -- (Reuters) Thousands of Kosovo Albanians marched through the streets of their capital on Thursday to demand an end to violence and ethnic division in the northern city of Mitrovica.

The protesters, mainly students and university professors, called on Kosovo's NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force and United Nations administration to bring security and freedom of movement to the province's third-largest city.

Mitrovica, an industrial city with great symbolic importance for both Kosovo Albanians and Serbs, has been the scene of serious outbreaks of violence in the past two weeks.

At least nine people have been killed and more than 20 wounded, including two French peacekeepers.

The U.N. mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, says it has noted an increase in attacks on minorities elsewhere in the province since trouble flared in Mitrovica earlier this month. Local political leaders have warned tensions could escalate further.

"Stop the killings in Mitrovica" read one banner at the protest in Pristina, which police officers estimated attracted about 10,000 people.

"Serb paramilitaries and criminals move around freely and live in Albanian homes and apartments in northern Mitrovica, looting, terrorizing and massacring Albanians," university professor Shefqet Rashani alleged in a speech at the rally.

Albanians used to form the majority of the population in both halves of Mitrovica, as they do in Kosovo as a whole. But Serbs have grouped together in the north of Mitrovica and say Albanians cannot return to their homes for now.

The Serbs, who took control of the north after Albanians fled Serb forces during NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia, insist they are only trying to protect themselves from Albanian revenge attacks which have plagued post-war Kosovo.

"No Berlin wall in Kosovo"

Albanians suspect a Serb plot to control northern Mitrovica and its mineral-rich hinterland. Recent violence in the city have shown both Serbs and Albanians have no shortage of weapons and are prepared to use them to push their case.

Many of the protesters were students at Pristina university's faculty of mining and metallurgy, which is located in northern Mitrovica. The students have been unable to gain access to the building because of the division.

"No Berlin wall in Kosovo" read one placard at the rally.

"Our fellow students from Mitrovica still don't know the feeling of being a student in a university building," said Driton Lajci, president of the Pristina students' union.

Shocked by the recent violence, KFOR and the U.N. have drafted in extra troops and police to improve security in Mitrovica and the U.N. has promised a package of political and economic measures to normalize the situation there.

Original article