Serb freed in Kosovo case that sparked violence

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Jul 21, 2000 -- (Reuters) An ethnic Albanian judge in the flashpoint Kosovo city of Mitrovica ordered the release on Thursday of a Serb man whose arrest sparked violent protests and attacks on UN police.

The judge followed a prosecutor's request to free Dalibor Vukovic while a judicial investigation was conducted into allegations he assaulted an ethnic Albanian man last month.

A small group of supporters greeted Vukovic, a medical student in his 20s and a member of a self-styled Serb security force, when he walked out of the courthouse compound in Mitrovica late on Thursday afternoon with his arms aloft.

Tensions in the ethnically divided city, the scene of several serious outbreaks of violence since international authorities took responsibility for Kosovo last year, shot up on Monday evening after Vukovic was arrested by UN police.

Serbs have broken into the apartments of several police officers, stolen weapons, threatened officers and even briefly kidnapped one Indian policeman during the past few days.

Police suspended all patrols in Serb-dominated northern Mitrovica for more than a day because of the trouble.

Oliver Ivanovic, the leader of the Serb community in the northern city, welcomed Vukovic's release but accused the United Nations mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) of arresting him because he belonged to the so-called "bridge-watchers" protection group.

"This guy perhaps... made a very small crime but I think that the UNMIK police made a big spectacle because of some political reasons," Ivanovic told reporters.

"This is political harassment and it's not so good for the relationship between the Serb ethnic community and internationals," he said.

The bridge-watchers, a group of mostly young men equipped with two-way radios, monitor people and traffic crossing over the Ibar river which divides the run-down industrial city into Serb and ethnic Albanian dominated areas.

The Serbs insist the group is unarmed and exists purely to protect the north from attacks by ethnic Albanians. Albanians accuse the bridge-watchers of being involved in violence.

Ivanovic said the fact that an ethnic Albanian judge had freed Vukovic was a small sign of hope for relations between the two communities, separated by years of mutual hostility.

Officials in Kosovo's UN-led administration said it was important they had not bowed to mob pressure to have Vukovic released before he had been brought before a judge.

"It is essential that the rule of law prevails in Mitrovica and that all attempts to interfere with it are thwarted," said William Nash, a retired U.S. army general who serves as the city's chief administrator.

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