US, British forces leave Mitrovica after weapons sweep

WARSAW, Feb 24, 2000 -- (Reuters) Kosovo peacekeeping troops mounted their biggest effort yet to strip tense Mitrovica of weapons on Wednesday and the United Nations announced a bold plan to end the town's ethnic division.

In Brussels, a senior NATO military official said troop strength in Kosovo was insufficient and a request by military commanders for urgent reinforcements was receiving alliance support.

"NATO does not have the troops it needs in Kosovo. We have asked for reinforcements and the request has support," the official told Reuters.

Hundreds of U.S., French, British and Italian troops fanned out to what the military described as "hot zones" of this flashpoint Kosovo city in house-to-house weapons searches that were suspended after a massive Albanian demonstration on Monday.

An incomplete inventory from military sources said troops had confiscated a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a heavy, Russian-made machine gun, along with dozens of rifles, grenades, camouflage uniforms and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

The sources said U.S. and British troops, who had moved into Mitrovica this month to bolster the mostly French forces as conditions deteriorated, would be rotated out, with Americans leaving on Wednesday and Britons overnight. They would be replaced at least in part by Canadians, the sources said.

Troop levels would be kept close to the 2,300 level they had climbed to, and weapons searches would continue, officers of the KFOR force said.

"We still have a mission here and we still have work to do," said Flight Lieutenant Neville Clayton, a British spokesman. "There are still certain criminal elements and they are still bent on ethnic revenge attacks."

U.N. plans for Albanians to return to their homes

The United Nations announced a plan to get Albanian families back to their homes in the northern, Serb-dominated side of the town and to create a secure zone stretching from north to south, bypassing an area where Serbs have established a no-go zone for male Albanians.

"We need to push to find a new solution for coexistence," said U.N. Mitrovica regional administrator Mario Morcone, announcing the plan that will send hundreds of Albanians back to their homes in the north of the town and may bring some Serbs to the Albanian-dominated south.

In Skopje, the Macedonian army said it had raised its level of combat readiness along its border with southern Serbia because of the ethnic tension in Kosovo.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said on Monday there was "rising tension" in the Serbian region north of Macedonia and east of Kosovo, largely populated by ethnic Albanians.

In their search for arms in Mitrovica, NATO-led peacekeeping troops sometimes kicked down garage doors or forced entry to buildings, occasionally watched by sullen crowds of Serbs.

"There are still a lot of arms to recover, but this is a sign - we are here and we will continue to be here as long as it takes," said Captain Alain Racine of the French 8th Paratroop Brigade.

Racine led a force of about two dozen soldiers combing the ethnically mixed "Little Bosnia" quarter of Mitrovica.

By early afternoon, his squad had recovered three Kalashnikov assault rifles, several other rifles, camouflage uniforms and a variety of other weaponry.

Racine said most of the weapons were recovered from caches hidden in ruined buildings. "They are not dumb enough to carry them with them," he said, adding that there was no way of telling if the weapons had been hidden by Serbs or Albanians.

U.N. sources said an Albanian English professor working for U.N. police involved in the search operation had been dragged from his car and severely beaten.

There were no other reports of violence, but Serbs were clearly dismayed at the intensive arms sweep. "We are afraid of the Albanians," said one Serb man who declined to give his name. Asked if he thought he might be attacked once all the weapons are gone, he said "Yes."

At the same time, the United Nations announced a drive to try to defuse ethnic tension in the place U.S. Balkan expert Richard Holbrooke has called the most dangerous city in Europe.

The plan would get Albanians back to the homes they deserted in a night of terror in early February, when Serb paramilitaries killed at least eight and possibly nine people. Registration of families who want to return would begin on Friday, the United Nations said.

The plan worked out by Morcone with KFOR peacekeepers and Albanian community leaders calls for Albanian families who fled earlier this month to return to their homes in three apartment blocks, possibly as early as next week, U.N. officials said.

The estimated 75 Albanian families, as many as 1,500 people, fled the three apartment blocks on the Ibar River after Serb paramilitaries and thugs attacked Albanian homes in the north, killing up to nine people.

KFOR engineering troops have already begun building a new pedestrian bridge across the river, which divides the city into north and south sectors, to give the Albanians easy access.

The U.N. secure area would include apartment blocks and other neighborhoods just north and south of the river, including the area around the U.N. headquarters in the south, and two blocks in the south formerly occupied by Serbs.

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