Both sides trade blame for Kosovo clashes

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia, Feb 23, 2000 -- (Reuters) Uneasy calm settled over the divided Kosovo city of Mitrovica on Tuesday as Albanians, Serbs and peacekeepers traded blame for a wave of violence that threatened to erupt again.

NATO-led peacekeepers suspended house-to-house weapons searches in both the Albanian and Serb sectors of the city which had seemed to provoke as much unrest as they prevented.

About 1,000 Albanian miners demonstrated peacefully and silently for an hour on Tuesday near a bridge over the Ibar River which divides the warring sides. On Monday, peacekeepers fired tear gas and battled with their bare hands to prevent Kosovo Albanians from storming over to the Serb side.

The commander of French forces in Mitrovica said on Tuesday he would push efforts to reintegrate Albanians into the Serb-dominated north of the city.

Brigadier General Pierre de Saqui de Sannes said he would hold a meeting on Wednesday to try to arrange the quick return of Albanians who fled their homes, saying: "I am ready but we need the families."

The return of Albanians forced from their homes in the north of the city is seen as virtually certain to further inflame tensions between the two communities. A leader of the city's Serb community said earlier on Tuesday that it was still to soon for the Albanians to return to their homes.

France accuses both sides of stoking violence

In Paris French foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine accused both Serb and Albanian extremists of stoking violence in Mitrovica and called on the international community to stand firm against provocations.

In Brussels NATO Secretary-General George Robertson the alliance would take robust action against extremists on either side from fuelling further conflict.

"We're not just concerned with Serb mischief-makers. We're concerned with anybody else who wants to cause trouble," he told Britain's Sky Television News.

Robertson said the military alliance was also monitoring a Yugoslav troop build-up in other ethnic Albanian areas of southern Serbia and would not tolerate a new conflict there.

On Monday the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, accused the Belgrade government of fomenting the trouble in Mitrovica, a charge rejected on Tuesday by Yugoslav Information Minister Goran Matic.

Russia on Tuesday laid the blame for the troubles squarely on what it called "Albanian extremists" and called for firmer action to restore order in the city.

On Monday 60,000 ethnic Albanians marched from Kosovo's provincial capital Pristina to Mitrovica to demand an end to its division into a Serb north and ethnic Albanian south.

The Serb north had a mixed population before NATO's air war against Yugoslavia last year. Since then Albanians have been forced to flee the area and Serbs from other parts of Kosovo have taken refuge there, making it the largest of the province's besieged Serb enclaves.

Outbreaks of fighting in the city have left nine people dead and more than 20 wounded this month, including two French soldiers shot in gun battles.

Serbs say Albanians were armed

Leaders of the city's Serbs said hundreds of armed Albanians broke through KFOR lines on Monday to reach the bridge, but the peacekeepers denied it.

Oliver Ivanovic, leader of the Serbian National Council which claims to represent some 50,000 Serbs living in northern Kosovo, told reporters some of the Albanians had been armed with weapons including rocket propelled grenades.

"Yesterday was a prepared attack," he said. "There were many troublemakers in the crowd...Their intention was very clear and it was to make us afraid."

Kosovo Albanian political leader and former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrilla chief Hashim Thaci added his voice to allegations by Western officials that Belgrade was fomenting trouble.

"We know and the entire world knows that there are organized Serbs in Mitrovica, structures organized by the Belgrade regime and its opposition.

"As for the Albanian side I have no information, I do not exclude the possibility that some Albanians have weapons. But I have no information on organized structures and I don't believe there are any."

The European Union's security chief said peacekeepers were successfully preventing a bloodbath in Mitrovica and urged that more police be sent to the province.

"They can't make people love each other, but it's enough for them to be there to prevent people from killing each other," Javier Solana said in Lisbon.

Original article