Ethnic Albanians return to homes in Serbian part of Mitrovica

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia, Mar 12, 2000 -- (AFP) Ethnic Albanians were gradually returning to their homes in the Serb-dominated part of Kosovska Mitrovica Saturday, as an international program stayed on track in the explosive northern Kosovo town.

A spokesman for the NATO-led peacekeeping force NATO said that 49 ethnic Albanian families, comprising a total of 93 people, had voluntarily moved back into three apartment buildings on the north bank of the Ibar River, which cuts Mitrovica roughly in two.

Serb families share the concrete towers, and while their exact number was not available, French KFOR spokesman Fabrice Turco said the ethnic distribution was "pretty mixed."

All receive collective food aid, and officials consistently point to the continuing absence of violence within the housing project, in stark contrast to repeated clashes between ethnic Albanians and Serbs a few hundred meters (yards) from the coils of razor-wire surrounding the buildings.

Heavy security, including KFOR tanks equipped with 20 mm cannon and heavy machine guns, provide 24-hour security, and escorts are provided to ethnic Albanians who wish to walk to the town's central bridge, which leads to Albanian neighborhoods in the south.

"We've provided the means" to ensure all the families are safe, said French spokesman Nicolas Naudin, adding that Belgian, Danish, and French troops were adding a multi-national dimension to the effort.

A similar project is being developed for two buildings just across the river, and a KFOR engineering battalion is building a footbridge that will connect the two complexes.

UN civilian policemen told AFP they had been received offers from civilians to rent apartments in the north Mitrovica towers, but preferred to live in areas with less security.

On Saturday, the northern enclave was quiet, with a few men and women taking in the late winter sun that bathed Mitrovica's hills, houses, and dusty streets.

Parked cars are forbidden within the protected area, in part due to a lack of space, and an armored personnel carrier and jeep escorted a mini convoy of old French and Yugoslavian cars that were allowed to pass through after being searched.

An elderly woman showed identification to one of the French soldiers on guard duty, who then carried her orange shopping bag to the building where she lived.

A dozen soldiers poured concrete for the foundations for the footbridge to the south, beneath scores of television satellite dishes that adorn the gray concrete towers.

"Very quiet," was how a captain in the street described the situation, just a week after a UN repatriation sparked violent protest by Serbs outside the security perimeter.

UN policemen noted that while northern Mitrovica often presented them with the same security tasks as their home towns in northern Italy or the southern US state of Georgia, when trouble flared, it did so in the space of 30 seconds, and could then last for hours.

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