UN official discusses flashpoint Kosovo town with Serb leaders

PRISTINA, Feb 25, 2000 -- (AFP) Kosovo's western administrators met Thursday with Serbian leaders from the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica to negotiate means of reducing tension in the explosive town.

The self-appointed leader of the Serbs in northern Mitrovica, Oliver Ivanovic, was ferried with other leaders into U.N. Kosovo mission (UNMIK) headquarters in Pristina by the back door after arriving with an escort of French KFOR peacekeepers in armoured vehicles.

"KFOR and UNMIK must understand who is in danger now. If they understood that the next step would be more easy," he said after the meeting with UNMIK head Bernard Kouchner and KFOR commander General Klaus Reinhardt.

"It's very clear that Serbs are in danger, not Albanians at the present," he added.

He said that while the talks aimed at reducing tension in Mitrovica, rocked by weeks of inter-community violence, it would take time to reach concrete conclusions.

"Security is such a serious and important question that we need more time for that," he said.

He was dismissive of UNMIK plans to build a footbridge over the central Ibar river to allow ethnic Albanians in the Serb-dominated north to cross to the ethnic Albanian south.

"I think that bridges cannot resolve the problem. They can create many bridges but its more important to create a safe atmosphere on both sides of the Ibar river," he said.

"We can succeed to return some Albanians in the north," he said in response to UNMIK plans to allow some of the 2,000 ethnic Albanians who have fled the recent violence to return to their homes in the north.

Kouchner was upbeat after the meeting but stressed it was just "the first millimetre on the way to coexistence and peace."

"This is the first time that we start to study a plan not on one side but together," he said. "The process of peace-making is always very long. It has never been achieved in some months, never, nowhere."

Mitrovica has been the scene of widespread ethnic violence this month following a rocket attack on a U.N. refugee bus that killed two Serbs and sparked repeated attacks in the town. At least 11 people have died in the unrest.

Ivanovic added he would be willing to meet the self-proclaimed ethnic Albanian mayor of southern Mitrovica, Bajram Rexhepi, who has accused him of organizing Serb paramilitaries in the north.

"I think both of us are moderate people and we can discuss with each other," he said, adding that he would over-ride a decsion by the Serb National Council (SNV) forbidding such contact.

The SNV is a province-wide political organization of Kosovar Serbs who have boycotted UNMIK-sponsored administrative bodies.

Original article