By ALEKSANDAR VASOVICDozens wounded as ethnic fighting continues in divided Kosovo city
KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia (March 8, 2000) - NATO peacekeepers imposed an early curfew Wednesday morning in this ethnically divided city, hoping to ease tensions inflamed after a street brawl led to gunshots and grenade blasts that injured 16 French peacekeepers and 24 civilians.
Attackers shot into a crowd during a fight between an ethnic Albanian and a Serb on Tuesday, touching off a clash that further underlined NATO's failure to ease ethnic passions in Kosovska Mitrovica.
On Wednesday, an early morning explosion went off in an abandoned house in northern Kosovska Mitrovica, but there were no injuries. "It was nothing," said Lt. Matthieu Mabin, a spokesman for French peacekeepers.
U.N. officials halted attempts to register Serbs wanting to return to their homes on the southern, ethnic Albanian side of town, but managed to slip 13 ethnic Albanians back into the predominantly Serb part of the city, sending them home to a high-rise apartment complex that was the site of repatriations last week.
"The events of yesterday made our operation confused," Mabin said. "Part of the problem for the French peacekeepers is that the southern part of the city is almost exclusively ethnic Albanian, making a relocation of Serbs extremely sensitive.
"The north (of Mitrovica) is still multiethnic, but not the south. We need time. We need to be diplomatic."
The violence in Kosovska Mitrovica, 20 miles northwest of Kosovo's provincial capital, Pristina, underlines the difficulties NATO faces in attempting to return the town to its prewar, multiethnic status.
Tuesday's fight broke out on the Serb-controlled north side when an ethnic Albanian attacked an unidentified Serb man with a crowbar, witnesses said.
Several Serbs rushed to help the injured man, while others went after the ethnic Albanian. In the crush, another ethnic Albanian opened fire from the backyard of a nearby house, seriously wounding one Serb.
"That created panic," Mabin said. He arrived at the scene on foot, backed by armored vehicles.
The French headed down a narrow side street, as grenade blasts rang out. Twenty Serbs, 16 French peacekeepers and four ethnic Albanians were hurt in the fighting, said Lt. Col. Patrick Chanliau, another spokesman for the French peacekeepers. A seventeenth peacekeeper was injured in a separate incident.
Four ethnic Albanians have been arrested, Chanliau said.
After the grenade blasts, French peacekeepers began door-to-door searches in the Bosnjacka Mahala neighborhood where the fighting occurred. They later moved up the city's curfew by two hours to 8 p.m., and promised to take any measures necessary to make the region secure.
Kosovo is a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. NATO-led peacekeepers moved into Kosovo last June, after a 78-day bombing campaign that ended a yearlong Serb crackdown on ethnic Albanians there.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed concern Tuesday that the U.N. administration in Kosovo is operating in "limbo" because the province's political future has not been clearly defined.
The "very ambiguous situation" created by the U.N. Security Council resolution that ended the bombing campaign has left ethnic Albanians and Serbs with different understandings about the future, he said.
U.N. resolutions call for "substantial autonomy" for Kosovo. "Substantial autonomy has not been defined in any way," Annan said.