20 000 Albanians march on divided Kosovo city

PRISTINA, Feb 21, 2000 -- (Reuters) Around 20,000 Kosovo Albanians marched on the strife-torn city of Mitrovica on Monday to protest against its division into Serb and Albanian-dominated sectors.

The marchers gathered in the provincial capital Pristina and set off at around 0800 GMT in freezing weather for Mitrovica, 25 miles (40 kilometers) to the northwest.

Forming a column several km (miles) long on the road to Mitrovica, they blocked all traffic. Two helicopters of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force hovered overhead.

KFOR said only a small delegation would be allowed into the town for security reasons.

"We had to reach a compromise as we didn't wish to inflame the situation," said KFOR spokesman Neville Clayton.

In Mitrovica itself, the situation was tense. A crowd of Kosovo Albanians broke through a security cordon made up of a few peacekeeping soldiers and converged in front of the bridge over a river which divides the Albanian and Serb districts.

The crowd of more than a thousand waved Albanian flags and jeered at Serbs gathered at the other end of the bridge. KFOR soldiers and armoured personnel carriers stood between them.

March For Kosovo

A Kosovo Albanian pamphlet distributed in Pristina called on people to join the march, saying it was a "march for Kosovo."

"Even eight months after the establishment of KFOR in Kosovo, part of our country is still controlled by Serb criminals who have in the past few days launched a campaign to force out ethnic Albanians from their houses in the northern part of Mitrovica," the pamphlet said.

At least nine people - both Albanians and Serbs - have died and around 20 have been wounded in armed violence this month in Mitrovica. The wounded include two French soldiers shot in gunbattles on February 13.

Monday's march took place as KFOR was winding down a large-scale search for weapons and paramilitary criminals in Mitrovica which started the previous day.

Demonstrators carried banners protesting against the city's ethnic division. "No cantonization and no enclaves," said one.

Marchers also carried flags of NATO, the United States, Britain, Germany and Albania.

"This is the last time the Serbs harass and kill Albanians in Mitrovica," said one of the demonstrators, 45-year-old Feta Jakupi. "We were forced to gather here today and show our determination to resolve Mitrovica's problem."

The march was escorted by a few vehicles of KFOR and of the U.N. police mission in Kosovo, now under international rule after NATO's air war last year forced Yugoslav forces to withdraw.

Another KFOR spokesman, Mark Cox, said the force estimated that around 20,000 people were taking part.

Protesters said on arriving they would present their demands on ending Mitrovica's division to KFOR and to the province's U.N.-led administration as well as to local Albanian leaders.

Kosovo Albanians formed the majority in both halves of the city before fleeing Serb repression during NATO's March-June bombing campaign.

Albanians say they dare not return to their homes in the now Serb-dominated area they fled. Serbs have moved into northern Mitrovica, insisting they must group together for protection after fleeing Albanian revenge attacks elsewhere in Kosovo.

Original article