Mitrovica "bridge guards" defend biggest Serb enclave in Kosovo

By Anne Le Coz

February 28, 2000

Walkie-talkie to hand, on duty 24 hours a day, Mitrovica's "bridge guards" are defending the biggest Serb community left in Kosovo with military efficiency.

International peacekeepers have struggled to keep the lid on ethnic tensions in the northern Kosovo town in recent weeks and the Serb minority runs its own sophisticated parallel operation.

Six-man teams, dressed in red outfits and grey-blue jackets, guard the main bridge in Mitrovica, as well as KFOR units, to stop ethnic Albanians crossing the river north into the mainly Serb part of town.

"There are about 150 defenders of the bridge nowadays, when the situation is relatively normal," one of the guards told AFP. Most of them carrying radio transmitters provided by "foreign humanitarian organizations."

The leader of the Mitrovica Serbs, Oliver Ivanovic, told AFP 800 of his men were on the bridge on February 21, when thousands of Albanians tried to cross into the Serb side. If the Albanians ever make it across the bridge, Ivanovic said he could mobilize 7,000 men in a matter of hours.

The "bridge guards" have been labeled as paramilitaries controlled by Belgrade but they say they are just "normal citizens."

"Only well-organized Serbs can defend themselves and KFOR can only help us if we are organized. These people are not only defending the bridge, they also take care about the order in town, prevent spreading of panic and they are awake all the time. It is exhausting, but has a great effect. It has prevented ethnic cleansing of this part of Kosovo," Ivanovic said.

"No matter that KFOR is checking all those who cross the bridge, we do the same. We allow only Albanians who have documents proving they live in the northern part to cross the bridge," another bridge guard, 50 year-old former Kosovo judo champion, Marijan Ilincic told AFP.

"Now they (the West) are trying to accuse us of being organized by Slobodan Milosevic and certain secret services, but everyone can come and see that this is not true, that Milosevic's army and the police have withdrawn from Kosovo," said Rodoljub Popovic, 50, who fled Vuciturn when Serb troops withdrew last June.

"We have organized ourselves and we are not a paramilitary unit as (NATO General Wesley) Clark and other NATO generals claim. And KFOR has searched all the houses in the northern part of the town and could see there were no weapons. We are all defenders of the bridge, because it secures our survival here," said one young man.

Ethnic tension has erupted into violence in Kosovska Mitrovica in recent weeks since a grenade attack on a UN bus on February 2 killed two elderly Serbs near the town.

General Pierre de Saqui, who heads the peacekeeping force in the north of Kosovo, admits the highly publicized KFOR operation "Ibar" has not produced extraordinary results since it began three days ago.

"After years of war, we know there are hidden weapons everywhere, in every community," he said.

In the "bridge bouncers" part of town, the Dolce Vita bar, positioned at the northern end of the bridge, has been searched several times in vain.

Despite repeated announcements that the U.N. is going to set up a security zone along the bridge, where gangs cannot gather, the Dolce Vita has never been closed and continues to blast out Serb nationalist songs on evenings when tension is high.

"The Dolce Vita makes our job easier," a military source explained. "If we close it down, its regulars will spread out and be harder to watch."

KFOR does not try to seize the Serbs' communications equipment either because, as an information officer said, "it is the best source of information," the peacekeepers have.

Original article