Kosovo Albanians return under French escort
KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia, Mar 4, 2000 -- (Reuters) Forty-one ethnic Albanians returned to their homes on the tense Serb side of the divided Kosovo city of Mitrovica under heavy French guard on Friday after rioting by infuriated Serbs.
French troops of the KFOR peacekeeping force used armored personnel carriers to spirit the Albanians across the Ibar river dividing the town to homes they had fled during ethnic violence last month.
Five French soldiers were injured by stones thrown during the rioting while some four to five Serbs were injured as French peacekeepers fired volleys of tear gas and stun grenades at the bridge during the actual return, French officers said.
Later the city was calm.
Military sources later revealed that the vehicles had forded the Ibar River instead of using either of two bridges.
The 41 Albanians emerged from the armored personnel carriers looking bemused and clutching small bags of belongings.
"They are here," said Mario Morcone, the UN administrator for northern Kosovo and Mitrovica, standing in front of the Albanians' heavily-fortified apartment complex.
Dozens of French armored vehicles not only protected the front of the building, but there were dozens more in a courtyard behind.
"Unfortunately it was necessary to use force to do something that is completely normal," said French General Pierre de Saqui de Sannes, who commanded the operation.
The families fled the northern part of Mitrovica, a flashpoint city of Albanian-Serb tensions, after a new wave of violence which left eight to nine Albanians dead hit the city last month.
In total 43 families comprising hundreds of people had been due to come back. Asked if the rest would be following on Saturday, Morcone said, "I think not." He added he was waiting for the situation to calm down.
Although only a partial success, it was an important symbolic gesture for UN Kosovo administrator Bernard Kouchner who is due to report to the UN Security Council next week.
FAILURE A MAJOR EMBARRASSMENT
A failure on Thursday to get the families back had been a major embarrassment for the United Nations and the NATO-led KFOR force which abandoned the plan in face of Serb resistance.
Earlier on Friday the gendarmes, with riot shields and gas masks, had cleared the main bridge as the sound of shooting mingled with the explosion of tear gas.
"They are shooting real guns at us," said a UN civilian policeman, ordering reporters off the bridge.
Up to a dozen shots could be heard coming from the northern end of the bridge where the Serbs were gathered. There was no immediate indication who they were aimed at and no sign of casualties. Some of the Serbs could be seen holding iron bars.
Hundreds of Albanians stood quietly on the south bank of the river watching the operation while outraged Serbs threw stones and battled with soldiers on the other side of the river.
As the return proceeded, French forces fired more stun grenades and tear gas to disperse hundreds of angry Serbs who had gathered outside the complex.
Twenty-one French and Danish armored personnel carriers and a double cordon of around 200 soldiers with shields, helmets and gas masks, kept back the Serbs, who appeared to have been taken by surprise by the dash across the river.
KFOR regional spokesman Patrick Chanliau told reporters five French soldiers had been hurt by stones and that two of them were still in hospital. Two men and two women, all Serbs, were also hurt, the men by rifle butts and the women by tear gas.
POLITICAL SOLUTION NEEDED
Asked how long the soldiers would guard the complex, General de Saqui de Sannes said: "As long as it takes, but Mr Kouchner must go to the Security Council and find a political solution."
Morcone told Reuters he was distressed at the need for such a display of force to get the Albanians back to their homes, but hoped it would only be temporary.
"You have seen these people are old people. Where is the danger?" he asked.
Earlier, French troops had clashed with Serbs when they raided a building known as the "bridge boys" house, where Serb men wait to prevent Albanians from crossing over.
"At a certain point you can't keep giving in to them. We cannot let them do what they want all the time," Saqui de Sannes said.
He also later announced that a suspect had been arrested in the killing of a Russian KFOR soldier who died of his wounds after being shot in the nearby town of Srbica on Tuesday.