Nato battles Kosovo rioters, warns Belgrade

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia, Feb 22, 2000 -- (Reuters) As Western peacekeepers battle rioters in a flashpoint Kosovo town, NATO leaders are blaming Yugoslavia and warning it against touching off a new ethnic conflict beyond the province's borders.

Thousands of ethnic Albanians tried to storm across a bridge in the center of Kosovska Mitrovica on Monday to reach Kosovo's largest remaining Serb enclave.

British, French, Canadian and Danish troops held them off with tear gas and bare hands and the rioters - part of a crowd of 60,000 marching in protest against Serb control of the northern part of the town - dispersed after several hours.

The previous day, peacekeepers clashed with Mitrovica's Serbs, who were angered by their search for weapons following shootings and grenade attacks which killed nine people.

Balkan peacemaker Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in New York that trouble was being fomented by the Yugoslav government, which was forced by last year's NATO air war to surrender control in Serbia's southernmost province.

"Problem from Belgrade"

"The problem here comes from Belgrade," Holbrooke told reporters. "This is not a simple question of local Serbs who are all stirred up north of the bridge. This is being stirred up by the MUP (Yugoslav Interior Ministry), by the Yugoslav authorities - and the Yugoslav leadership is directly responsible for this."

The Yugoslav Interior Ministry was also singled out by NATO sources in Brussels who said four companies of well-armed MUP special police had moved into a region just east of Kosovo which is home to 100,000 ethnic Albanians.

Alliance Secretary-General George Robertson warned that NATO was watching "flashpoints in Kosovo and the surrounding areas" and would act if required.

"Anybody who seeks to be provocative in that part of the world, on whatever side of the divide they may be...we will not tolerate action being taken," Robertson, a British life peer, told reporters.

NATO Supreme Commander General Wesley Clark, visiting Albania, also expressed concern about possible conflict in the southernmost area of Serbia still controlled by Belgrade.

Talks with Albanians

Clark held talks with Kosovo Albanian leader Hashim Thaci and Macedonia's ethnic Albanian leader Arben Xhaferri, urging them to use their influence to prevent a flare-up in the region, where Albanians say they are being driven out and Serb authorities say they face Albanian terrorism.

"Clark was deeply worried about the possibility of a conflict breaking out in Presevo and Bujanovac," Xhaferri told reporters.

The Belgrade ministry was not available for comment on NATO statements. A Yugoslav Army officer told Reuters that "only regular and planned activities are going on in the region."

British and Canadian troops bore the brunt of Monday's battle at the Mitrovica bridge, forming human chains to stop the protesters, who waved Albanian flags with a black eagle on a red field and jeered and whistled at Serbs gathered at the other end of the bridge.

They battled the crowd for about two hours before tension died down.

The area south of the bridge resembled a battlefield at times, with tear gas swirling and coils of barbed wire strewn across the muddy ground.

"The key thing, really, was to prevent an escalation in which somebody fired on the other one. This would have been a disaster," said German General Klaus Reinhardt, commander of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force, who visited the scene.

Original article