Tense Kosovo town braces for Serb demonstration

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Feb 25, 2000 -- (Reuters) The tense Kosovo city of Mitrovica braced for a rally by Serbs on Friday while ethnic Albanians prepared to return to their flats they abandoned during violent clashes last week.

There was a heavy military presence of NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping troops in the city that has been a flashpoint for violence between the two communities.

Canadian troops who control the main Ibar River bridge dividing the city rolled out barbed wire across the span to prevent clashes.

Officials said they were not expecting trouble and predicted the number of Serb demonstrators would not approach anything like the estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Albanians who marched on Mitrovica on Monday.

"I expect there will only be 2,000 to 3,000 Serbs," said a U.N. police source. "And I don't think they will be crazy enough to cause any trouble."

Oliver Ivanovic, the president of the executive board of the Serb National Council in Mitrovica, was quoted by state news agency Tanjug as saying: "The Serbs will gather with only one wish - to convey to the world their determination to stay and survive in Kosovo."

The United Nations and humanitarian agencies meanwhile registered Albanian families who fled three apartment blocks in the Serb north of the city in mid February after a night of Serb-led violence which left nine dead.

By late morning some 46 families had signaled their intention to return to their homes, UNMIK police officer Nathalie Dore said.

"We will check to see that the flats are not occupied by the people who are not supposed to be there," Dore said, added she did not know when an organized return to the buildings would be arranged.

Some Albanians voiced displeasure at having to register their intention to return to their homes.

"The living conditions on this side are very bad," said Sashivar Begu, 55, an unemployed miner who has been living in temporary quarters in southern Mitrovica since he fled his flat on February 14.

Begu, whose left eye was heavily bandaged, said he was hurt when a hand grenade was thrown into a neighbor's flat where he was hiding the night Serb vigilantes went on a rampage.

"How can I feel safe to go back there when my neighbor's flat has been completely destroyed and in mine you can count the bullet holes in the walls and in the windows?

"Serbs do what they want because they feel they are being protected," he said.

Albanians in Mitrovica claim French troops, who are mainly responsible for security in the city, favor the Serbs, and have applauded recent moves by KFOR to bring in soldiers from different countries.

In Brussels, NATO ambassadors met to chart the alliance's next moves in Kosovo with the KFOR peacekeeping mission commander, General Klaus Reinhardt, joining in by video linkup from Pristina.

Alliance supreme commander General Wesley Clark, also attending the session, has called for several thousand more troops for KFOR. France has taken the lead with a promise to raise its contingent by a further 700.

Original article