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Crisis 1999
News Archive 1999

Armed clashes mar three-month 'peace' dateline

Clashes between armed Serbs and both KFOR and Albanians have surged on the eve of the three-month marker of the military technical agreement establishing the international military presence in Kosovo.

By Laura Rozen in Pristina

Officials with the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo believe that persistent clashes in northern and eastern Kosovo are part of a larger effort by Serb paramilitaries to destabilise the province.

On the eve of the three-month marker of the military technical agreement, which paved the way for an international peace-keeping force in Kosovo, violence has soared in several strategic areas.

"Several episodes over the last few days have shown worrying indications of what seem to be organised Serb attempts to deliberately destabilise the security situation in Kosovo," KFOR an Major Ole Irgens told a press conference in Pristina Monday.

"The disturbances in Mitrovica seem to have been carefully orchestrated, and you will be aware of reports of Serb activity in the northern and eastern areas of Kosovo."

Evidence cited by KFOR officials of a co-ordinated effort by organised Serb paramilitary groups includes the fact that one of three Serbs shot and killed by Russian peacekeepers in eastern Kosovo last week was wearing a black paramilitary uniform, a fact KFOR had previously not revealed. In fact, KFOR has several reports of groups of armed Serb fighters in uniform-style clothes sited operating in Kosovo.

The most intense Serb paramilitary activity is in the divided northern city of Kosovska Mitrovica, where for three months French peacekeepers, cement blocks and swirling bundles of barbed wire have separated Serbs on the northern side of the Ibar River, from Albanians on the south.

KFOR intelligence reports say that clashes there in which close to 200 people were injured late last week were not a spontaneous eruption of existing tensions in the divided city, but a carefully orchestrated effort by armed Serb groups to provoke violence.

This began last Thursday when armed Serbs attacked Albanian families who had recently been resettled in their homes in the northern part of the city. The attacks led Albanian families to flee to the southern part, and to angry Albanians at the southern end attempting to cross the bridge into the north.

Blocked by French peacekeepers, rioting ensued in which dozens were injured, including 15 KFOR peacekeepers, and one Albanian was killed.

One theory to explain the upsurge in violence is that Serb groups are hoping to pressure KFOR into allowing Yugoslav Army soldiers and Serbian police back into the province after September 15, the three-month marker of the military technical agreement.

It seems that Serbs may be attempting to keep the entire territory north of Mitrovica under Serb control. On Saturday, Danish peacekeepers haplessly tried to calm 50 Serbs who had blocked the road running between Mitrovica and Montenegro, demanding that KFOR prevent ethnic Albanians from using it.

Serbs now effectively control all but a few villages in the triangle of territory above the Ibar river in Mitrovica. Albanian residents of the village of Cabra, north of Mitrovica, are reported to be virtually blockaded in their village, with no supplies reaching them. According to the Albanian language newspaper Bota Sot, Serbs turned back an NGO called Peace Winds which had been trying to enter the area.

KFOR also reported that it arrested three Serbs at the barricades in Mitrovica Sunday, armed with an AK-47, five grenades, three radio sets, and an assortment of knives. Beyond the radios, which indicate a degree of co-ordination and communication, an American reporter in Mitrovica saw crates of Yugoslav Army uniforms being opened by Serbs in the northern part of the city over the weekend.

KFOR officials said Monday that elements of the Serbian press have been erroneously reporting that the Yugoslav Army and Serbian police will be allowed to return to the province after the three month marker.

"I would also like to correct speculation in some sections of the Serbian press that [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] forces will return to Kosovo next week once the UCK [the Kosovo Liberation Army] has demilitarised," Major Irgens said Monday.

"This is not true. Any eventual return of selected Yugoslav forces will be conducted under the close supervision of KFOR when COMKFOR judges the time to be right. The time is not yet right."

But an American official with the international police says that Serbian police may be allowed to return to Kosovo in the coming days to help protect Serb enclaves.

One justification for the return of Serbian police and military forces to Kosovo would be the rash of ethnic violence that has forced the majority of Kosovo's non-Albanian population to flee.

It nevertheless, appears that the number of Serbs remaining in Kosovo may be higher than previously reported. Bernard Kouchner, head of the UN Mission in Kosovo, said over the weekend that about 90,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo, as well as some 70,000 other non-Albanians.

The Serbian Red Cross in Belgrade has reported registering some 173,000 people who had fled Kosovo since KFOR troops arrived. Since the total number of Serbs thought to be in Kosovo before the war was around 200,000, UN refugee officials had concluded that fewer than 30,000 Serbs remained. But the UNHCR spokesman in Kosovo said Monday that the agency now believes that this low-end estimate is inaccurate.

"There are large numbers of non-Albanians still in [Kosovo], including some 90,000 Serbs," UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler said. In fact, "KFOR estimates that there are 97,000 Serbs still in the province."

Laura Rozen has been covering the Balkans for western media since 1996.

© Institute of War &Peace Reporting

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