French troops fire teargas at Serbs in Mitrovica

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Apr 10, 2000 -- (Reuters) French troops fired teargas on Sunday to disperse a crowd of Serbs attacking ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo city of Mitrovica, the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force said.

The incident took place close to the main bridge over the Ibar river, which divides the volatile northern city into Serb and ethnic Albanian-dominated areas, a KFOR spokesman said.

Three ethnic Albanians had crossed the bridge into the Serb-dominated north in the early afternoon and been attacked with stones by Serbs, including members of a local self-declared security force known as the bridgewatchers, the spokesman said.

Mitrovica, postwar Kosovo's most dangerous flashpoint, has been the scene of several violent clashes involving Serbs, Albanians and peacekeepers over the past two months.

Recent weeks have been calm but Sunday's events underscored how easily tensions can boil over in the industrial city, which is patrolled mainly by French peacekeepers.

"KFOR very quickly reacted to prevent any confrontation," said the KFOR spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Chanliau.

He said the three Albanians were local staff workers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

An OSCE press officer in Mitrovica, Hanns-Christian Klasing, said the workers, who were not on duty, had taken photographs of the scene on the northern side.

International officials said that, in Mitrovica's tense atmosphere, the Serbs may have viewed this as a provocation.

A crowd of around 100 Serbs quickly gathered, some throwing stones at the Albanians and pursuing them, Chanliau said.

KFOR troops fired two teargas canisters to disperse the crowd and the Albanians escaped, he said. The Serbs also threw stones at the soldiers, three of whom were slightly injured. No arrests had been made, Chanliau said.

A crowd of ethnic Albanians, shouting and playing drums, had been heading to a soccer match on the southern side of the city at the time of the incident.

"Perhaps, as seen from the other bank, it looked like some kind of provocation. But in fact it wasn't," Chanliau said.

The fact that events as innocuous as producing a camera or going to a weekend soccer match can be seen as provocations is likely to serve as a reminder to international officials that tensions still run high beneath the surface in Mitrovica.

It appeared KFOR did not arrest the bridgewatchers involved in Sunday's incident for fear of raising tensions further.

Asked why KFOR had not detained them, Chanliau replied: "It was impossible to arrest them because a lot of people gathered at the same time. It's something else when you have a crowd in front of you."

Original article