UN controls whole of Kosovo's Trepca mining complex - Kouchner

Zvecan, Aug 17, 2000 -- (AFP) Bernard Kouchner, head of the UN mission in Kosovo, visited Wednesday a lead smelter which was closed down on his orders to avert a health crisis, and announced the take-over of the province's main industrial complex.

"We are now the administrators of all the complex of Trepca," he said.

On Monday troops from the KFOR peacekeeping force seized the Zvecan lead smelter and stopped production, which was causing dangerous levels of pollution.

Zvecan forms part of the giant Trepca industrial complex, 41 factories and mines representing three-quarters of Yugoslavia's potential mineral wealth.

Kouchner said the UN Security Council resolution which set up his administration gave him the right to administer publically owned resources in Kosovo, adding that Zvecan was in a "desperate state".

"It's as if we were living in the 19th century. We cannot accept that people risk their lives as slaves at the beginning of the 21st century," he told reporters, standing among the rust and rubble of the blighted plant.

Serbian workers at the complex, until Monday run by Serbian managers appointed by Belgrade, were paid the equivalent of only 30 German marks (15 dollars) per month, he said.

Levels of lead in the air around Zvecan, one mile (two kilometers) north of the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica, is 200 times higher than the safe maximum recommended by the World Health Organization, making Zvecan the most polluted plant in Europe, the United Nations said.

A French, US and Swedish consortium has been contracted to carry out a 16 million dollar refit of the plant, which is expected to be closed for "a few months," Kouchner said.

In the meantime the smelter's 600 workers will be paid YUN 1,250 (USD 24) a month to stay at home and will have their own representatives on the plant's board, he added.

So far 300 workers have signed up for the UN pay scheme, according to Kouchner's political adviser Bernard Salome.

Before the plant was closed its Serbian general manager, Novak Bjelic, was thrown off the premises because he was a "troublemaker" and unwilling to cooperate with the UN mission, Kouchner said.

Earlier some 2,000 Serbs had gathered in front of the plant for a peaceful protest against the closure. The night before a crowd of 1,500 had gathered in the center of Mitrovica, and another demonstration was planned for Wednesday night at 7:00 p.m. (1700 GMT).

The Serbian workforce fears it is to be pushed aside in favor of ethnic Albanian workers from elsewhere in Kosovo, but Kouchner insisted Wednesday that those already employed would keep their jobs.

Monday's seizure of Zvecan in an operation involving around 900 French, British and Danish troops provoked violent clashes with Serb protesters which left four Serbs and four soldiers slightly injured.

The Yugoslav government in Belgrade also reacted furiously, branding the move a "classic break-in," a theft of Serbian property.

Original article