Nato soldiers fight off KosovarsThrong of Ethnic Albanians Tries to Get Into Serbs' Zone
Paris, Tuesday, February 22, 2000
MITROVICA, Kosovo - NATO-led peacekeepers repeatedly fired tear gas Monday to hold off thousands of ethnic Albanians who were trying to cross into the Serbian part of this tense, ethnically divided city.
The protesters reached the main bridge in the center of Mitrovica, which separates the Serbs from the ethnic Albanians, north and south of the Ibar River.
Hundreds of red-and-black Albanian flags were flying on the Albanian side of the bridge.
Some Serbs who had gathered on the northern bank began to flee while others fought to reinforce their positions.
French peacekeeper reinforcements arrived in armored vehicles to strengthen cordons on the bridge, firing tear gas at five-minute intervals to hold off Albanians who had broken through another cordon.
General Wesley Clark, the NATO supreme commander, vowed in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, that the peacekeepers would take whatever measures were required to enforce order.
Tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians had set out from Pristina early Monday, on a 40-kilometer (25-mile) march to Mitrovica.
United Nations police officers and NATO-led troops accompanied the demonstrators. U.S. military vehicles and soldiers lined side roads to prevent the protesters from getting into the city center.
Nine people have been killed and dozens wounded in violence that followed a Feb. 2 rocket attack on a UN bus that killed two elderly Serbs.
French troops stationed in the town have been criticized by UN police and ethnic Albanians for failing to provide security for Albanians living on the Serbian side of the Ibar.
Earlier, a huge house-to-house weapons search, which began early Sunday in response to weeks of violence, was suspended in some areas for tactical reasons, NATO reported.
General Clark blamed the authorities in Belgrade for using their influence on the Serbs in Mitrovica.
In Brussels, the NATO secretary-general, George Robertson, said the alliance was monitoring a Serbian troop concentration in ethnic Albanian areas in southern Serbia, near Kosovo, and would not tolerate new Serbian-Albanian conflict.
''There is clearly rising tension in the southern part of Serbia and large numbers of additional Yugoslav troops have moved into the area,'' Lord Robertson said at a news conference after a meeting with the Western European Union.
He was apparently referring to areas in Serbia proper, in particular the Bujanovac-Presevo-Medveda region bordering the southeastern edge of Kosovo, where local sources have told of mounting fear and violence.
Ethnic Albanians say they are being driven out of the area, while Serbian authorities say they face Albanian terrorism.
The apparent influx of Serbian forces may be intended to provide psychological support for the Serbs in the northern part of Mitrovica, but Serbian villagers in the strip of land between Serbia and Kosovo have been complaining of attacks by armed Albanians.
There is a negotiated five-kilometer (three-mile) strip along the border into which Serbian forces are not supposed to intrude.
But villagers in the zone, especially around the town of Merdare, say they feel unprotected against Albanian raiders crossing from Kosovo.
In November a group of Albanians attacked a checkpoint with automatic fire, Serbs say. In a two-hour battle, a police vehicle hit a mine and three Serbs were killed.