Washington Post
Two French soldiers wounded in Kosovo

By R. Jeffrey Smith

Monday, February 14, 2000


KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia, Feb. 13 A northern corner of this ethnically divided city became a war zone today, as snipers shot and wounded two French peacekeepers. French troops responded by later killing an ethnic Albanian and wounding at least four others they said were firing at them from rooftops.

The exchange marked the worst armed clash between NATO-led peacekeepers and ethnic Albanians since June, when troops from 34 countries began arriving in Kosovo to supervise the peace following the end of Western alliance's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. The violence suggests a new boldness by armed extremists that could increase tensions between NATO troops and Kosovo's overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian population.

Almost every day since Feb. 3, residents of Kosovska Mitrovica have been seriously injured or killed in violent attacks between Serbs and ethnic Albanians. These attacks are beginning to draw peacekeepers into the line of fire.

Top U.N. and NATO officials were meeting late tonight at NATO headquarters in Pristina to try to figure out how to persuade the two communities to stop the reprisals and restore a measure of stability. But they also said they are convinced that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is attempting to undermine Kosovo's delicate peace by stoking ethnic hostilities here.

This afternoon, brief exchanges of heavy gunfire punctuated the air as Danish, British, French and Italian tanks and armored personnel carriers were deployed throughout the city. NATO helicopters buzzed overhead, and late into the night heavily armed French soldiers battered down doors of apartments to search for assailants.

At least 17 armed ethnic Albanians were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the sniping, NATO officials said. Earlier, Serbs threw a grenade into a crowd of ethnic Albanians and set several homes ablaze. At least two mortar rounds detonated near Italian troops.

A spokesman for the French military brigade responsible for the region including Kosovska Mitrovica said today's violence was of "a completely different nature than what we've seen so far" and said ethnic Albanian gunmen had tried to kill NATO soldiers. However, a spokesman at NATO headquarters said the snipers were attempting to kill Serbs on the street--in apparent retaliation for the Serbian grenade attack--when French troops fired back.

Despite NATO efforts to calm the situation, the fighting has heightened both the physical and political separation of Serbs and ethnic Albanians within Mitrovica, and the latest clashes have transformed the city into an even larger symbol of Kosovo's unresolved ethnic grievances.

In the past few days, thousands of ethnic Albanians throughout Kosovo have held protests to demonstrate their solidarity with ethnic kin in Mitrovica--and their anger with French soldiers, whom they accuse of siding with the Serbs.

Ethnic Albanians are angry that the French have refused to help more than 10,000 of their brethren return to their apartments in the northern part of the city, which is inhabited primarily by Serbs. NATO soldiers have had to erect checkpoints outside the city so they can block buses full of angry ethnic Albanian men from converging here.

Kosovo is a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, but has operated under a U.N. protectorate since last July following NATO's 78-day bombing campaign. But amid the violence in Mitrovica, U.N. and NATO officials say Milosevic is again stirring up ethnic unrest.

Bernard Kouchner, the U.N. administrator of Kosovo, said in an interview last week that it is no coincidence that the latest disturbances came shortly after moderate Serbian leaders in Kosovo--led by influential Serbian Orthodox Bishop Artemije--had signaled their willingness to participate with ethnic Albanians in a joint council that would help govern Kosovo's and organize municipal elections.

"We were on the verge of a real success," Kouchner said. In the aftermath of the recent violence, however, the moderate Serbs now fear for their safety and are reluctant to embrace any joint governing effort.

Added Kouchner: "Who has the interests . . . to stop our progress? Certain Serbs from Belgrade."

German Gen. Klaus Reinhardt, the commander of the NATO peacekeeping force, agreed. "I'm sure that Belgrade is trying to pull strings," he said. And others say Milosevic's regime has dispatched young Serbian men with military training to Mitrovica who have subsequently participated in violent attacks on ethnic Albanians.

Since the latest clashes began in Mitrovica, NATO officials have drawn up a list of 10 men--including some linked to Belgrade--whom they consider major troublemakers within the city's Serbian enclave. One man, a top aide to local Serbian community leader Oliver Ivanovic, has already been detained and expelled from the city. Several officials said that in coming days, soldiers will attempt to detain and expel the others from Kosovo, using U.N. legal authority.

Many ethnic Albanians and some U.N. officials have accused NATO of failing to act aggressively enough to keep Serbian extremists out of Mitrovica. A U.N. official here said, for example, that he has seen Serbs wearing light blue uniforms--similar to those worn by Yugoslav Interior Ministry troops--near the Serbian National Council headquarters here.

But Reinhardt said in a recent interview that "we were not successful at finding whole groups of paramilitaries" in two raids on a suspected hideout at the Zvecan monastery, located on a mountaintop to the north of the city. NATO soldiers have periodically checked cars entering Kosovo from elsewhere in Serbia, but they have yet to establish a computerized database of those crossing the border and so have had little success in stopping Serbians known to be dangerous.

Weapons searches of the city have also been largely unavailing, Reinhardt said; one such sweep four weeks ago turned up only a single AK-47 assault rifle in a U.N. car driven by a woman. Soldiers had better luck searching the sewer system, where they found a cache of mortars, but they are uncertain who stored them there or when they did so.

French troops responded far more forcefully to today's violence than they did on Feb. 3, when a mob of up to 700 Serbs rampaged through northern Mitrovica and killed at least five ethnic Albanians in their homes.

Today, French soldiers were explicitly authorized by their superiors to shoot at snipers threatening Serbs on the street--after one French soldier at a checkpoint was shot in the stomach and another was shot in the arm, several officials said.

They fired 20mm cannon shells at several rooftops, ripping into shingles and turning chimneys into puffs of mortar dust. The French declined an offer of help from a company of British soldiers, who returned fire when one of their own came under attack. But at day's end, the French were uncertain whether all of the snipers who shot at them had been caught.




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