Mitrovica resettlements stalled

By Aleksander Vasovic

4 March 2000

French peacekeepers abandoned plans to move more ethnic Albanians to the north side of the divided town of Mitrovica on Saturday, apparently because there were no volunteers after defiant local Serbs sought to block Friday's initial resettlement.

U.N. spokesman Peter Biro said no Albanian families would be returned to their homes on the Serb side of the Ibar River Saturday, but the United Nations was planning to repatriate Serb families to the Albanian side as early as next week. Such a move is likely to further inflame already tense feelings in the tense city.

But Biro said, "This is a first step to making the city more open ... it is important to show that we are determined to keep the city open."

French and Greek soldiers were securing Saturday three apartment buildings where 41 returnees were brought Friday by Danish troops in armored vehicles that forded the Ibar River, after a failed attempt to get ethnic Albanians across using a footbridge.

Some Serbs living in the same complex were moving out Saturday. It was not immediately clear how many.

More violence was reported near Kosovska Mitrovica and on Kosovo's boundary with Serbia where sustained gunfire was heard overnight.

On Friday, peacekeepers used tear gas and stun grenades to break through a crowd of Serbs protesting in front of the apartment complex that the Albanians earlier had to flee due to ethnic violence.

Hasan Jashari, who returned to his home aboard an armored personnel carrier, told reporters on Saturday, "I would rather die here than be in someone else's house ... There is room and work for all of us" in Mitrovica.

Paula Ghedini, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Pristina, criticized the repatriation, saying the situation was too tense for their return.

Amid persistent violence in the province, there was an attack outside the Serb village of Grabovac near Mitrovica. Oliver Ivanovic, a Serb official, said there were two explosions, adding the attack was carried out with rifle grenades fired from a nearby hill. No injuries were reported. Philippe Pacaud, a U.N. spokesman, confirmed there was an "incident" in the area and peacekeepers were investigating.

Meanwhile, sustained gunfire was heard for some two hours after midnight in the area of Dobrosin, an ethnic Albanian village inside Serbia right at Kosovo's boundary. Some 180 people in about 20 vehicles were reported having fled into Kosovo.

Lt. Cmdr. Philip Anido, a NATO spokesman, said "KFOR has significantly increased its security posture along the boundary with this region, known as the Presevo valley, where armed Albanian extremists have been observed in recent weeks," referring to the Kosovo Force.

He also said the gunfire was assessed to be a shootout between the extremists and Serbian local police "who are authorized to maintain civil law and order within the five–kilometer safety zone."

A new ethnic Albanian rebel group formed in the region is believed to have killed a senior Serb police officer in an amubush last week. The armed Albanians also shot and wounded a U.N. staffer allegedly mistaking him for Serb police.

There are fears that the southern Serbian region could be the scene of renewed fighting similar to the one in Kosovo last year, which led to NATO attacks against Yugoslavia. Already, hundreds of ethnic Albanians are fleeing to Kosovo.

On Friday, Serb protesters, determined to prevent the repatriation in Kosovoska Mitrovica, marched through the city to the three high–rises and tried to push their way through a cordon of NATO troops and U.N. police. They were shoved back only to return for another scuffle several hours later.

Soldiers fired tear gas and stun grenades during both standoffs, injuring five French peacekeepers, according to French Gen. Pierre de Saqui de Sannes, the NATO commander in charge of northern Kosovo. Nine Serbs were also treated for injuries, authorities at the local hospital said.

De Saqui de Sannes defended the action as necessary to move the peace effort forward. He said peacekeepers would be stationed outside and inside the building 24 hours per day.

Kosovska Mitrovica, 30 kilometers (20 miles) northwest of Kosovo's provincial capital, Pristina, has been the scene of repeated ethnic unrest in recent weeks, resulting in several deaths and dozens of injuries.

Original article