France sure Nato can keep peace in Mitrovica

OTTAWA, Feb 22, 2000 -- (Reuters) French Defense Minister Alain Richard said on Monday he was confident NATO-led peacekeepers could maintain order in the divided Kosovo city of Mitrovica, scene of increasing tensions between Albanians and Serbs.

Richard blamed hardliners for a series of violent incidents in the city and said that given the deep divisions in Kosovo, the best KFOR peacekeeping force could hope for was that the Albanian and Serb communities eventually agreed to coexist peacefully.

He was speaking shortly after British, Canadian and French peacekeepers fired tear gas and used batons to disperse a large crowd of Albanians who had marched to Mitrovica to protest against its division into Albanian and Serb-dominated sectors.

"Our determination is total. We will overcome this period of tension and we will unmask the chiefs of those (military) factions who are trying to exacerbate tension and (inter-community) aggression to prevent the consolidation of the province," Richard told journalists after talks with Canadian Defense Minister Art Eggleton.

The minister said French troops - who are primarily responsible for keeping the peace in Mitrovica and northern Kosovo - had successfully dealt with several violent incidents in the area over the past few months.

"I believe that the willingness to hold our ground and to respect KFOR's mandate will prevail," he said.

"There are extremists, there are hardliners who seek to prevent progress being made. This is what lies behind the serious incidents we are seeing now," he said.

At least nine people - both Albanians and Serbs - have died and around 20 have been wounded in armed violence this month in Mitrovica. Stone-throwing protesters on Sunday attacked U.S. troops who raided apartments looking for weapons in a Serb-dominated district.

"Our allies have seen quite is not that easy to maintain control in this area where the Serb community is more dense and has its own organizations," Richard said, also laying the blame on some in the Albanian community.

"There is organized crime, there are still structures of the former Kosovo Liberation Army acting illegally so we all have some problems," he said, alluding to media criticism of how the French troops had performed in Mitrovica.

Richard was due to fly to Washington later on Monday to give his view on recent Kosovo incidents in which French peacekeepers have been accused of pro-Serb bias and not doing enough to protect Albanians.

"The mission of all of us in KFOR is to support coexistence between the two communities in a peaceful Kosovo. I say only coexistence because real multi-ethnicity, real tolerance and life in common will need much, much more time," he said.

"It will take time to have the same level of coexistence in Kosovo (as we do in Bosnia). We'll have other (violent) incidents like that but I think we will overcome them."

Richard said French troops had made some progress in Mitrovica and the northern sector of Kosovo.

"By the last count, at the end of January, the number of murders over the previous six months in the French sector was half the average number in Kosovo as a whole," he said.

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