Nato set to pursue arms sweep of Kosovo flashpoint

PARIS, Feb 21, 2000 -- (Reuters) NATO troops were set on Monday to push ahead with a major search operation in the volatile Kosovo city of Mitrovica, brushing aside attacks on U.S. soldiers by Serbs throwing rocks and bottles.

"We are, over the next few days, going to continue the sweeps of these neighborhoods," vowed Lieutenant Commander Philip Anido, spokesman for the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force.

Soldiers from the 3rd Battalion of 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment came under attack from a couple of hundred people during a raid on apartments in the Serb-dominated district of the ethnically divided northern industrial city.

The Serbs threw snowballs, bottles and stones and shouted insults at the troops on Sunday, the first day of the operation involving forces from more than 10 nations.

KFOR rejected Serb accusations the Americans had been too aggressive.

The French general in charge of Kosovo's northern military sector nevertheless pulled the U.S. troops out of the area to prevent an escalation in the flashpoint city, which has been the scene of several outbreaks of deadly violence recently.

Although KFOR stressed that the U.S. soldiers had more or less finished their mission there at the time of the pullout, the decision showed commanders are acutely aware that tensions are acutely balanced in Mitrovica.

German armored personnel carriers and several Western journalists were also attacked or abused by Serbs on Sunday.

The most dangerous place

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a few days ago described Mitrovica as "certainly the most dangerous place in Europe at the moment".

Fearful of aggravating the situation further, KFOR has ruled that a protest march by ethnic Albanians on Monday from the provincial capital Pristina to Mitrovica, some 25 miles (40 kilometers) to the northwest, will not be allowed to enter the city.

The Albanians want to protest against the division of Kosovo's third-largest city, where Serbs have grouped together to form a majority in the district north of the River Ibar.

Albanians complain that members of their community cannot return to the homes they fled in fear of Serb forces, before NATO bombing drove those forces out of Kosovo last June.

The Serbs insist they have grouped together simply for their own protection, having been forced to flee Albanian revenge attacks elsewhere in Kosovo.

Sunday's searches yielded a provisional haul of 10 AK-47 weapons, four M-48 rifles, one automatic pistol, seven blocks of plastic explosive, 18 loaded magazines, a large amount of other ammunition, one grenade and one machinegun, KFOR said.

The peacekeepers acknowledged the finds so far were not large for an operation which included numerous patrols and vehicle checkpoints and involved more than 1,500 soldiers. But they stressed the operation was far from over.

"The information we have is that there are certain caches of weapons and those are the ones that we are looking for and are intent on finding," Anido told Reuters Television News.

KFOR has insisted that Sunday's reaction by the Serbs does not mean the U.S. soldiers would not be deployed again in the northern part of the city.

Gunbattles, shootings and grenade attacks have claimed the lives of at least nine people and wounded more than 20, including two French soldiers, in Mitrovica since the start of this month.

Original article