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NATO Deploying More Troops as Kosovo Violence Continues

U.S., Italian and British soldiers are joining the force of 17,500 in the region. The five-year effort to calm ethnic tensions is imperiled.

March 19, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman and Zoran Cirjakovic | Special to The Times

BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro — NATO sent more troops to Kosovo as violence flared Thursday for a second day and the United Nations struggled with the reality that five years of international intervention and billions of dollars in aid have not calmed the hatred between Serbs and ethnic Albanians.

As 940 additional NATO soldiers were dispatched, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo set Serbian Orthodox churches ablaze and police rolled out razor wire and fired tear gas. The violence spilled over from Wednesday, when clashes and house-burnings killed at least 22 people and injured 500 in a new spasm of ethnic tension in the Balkans.

NATO forces evacuated dozens of Serbs as homes smoldered across Kosovo, a Serbian province under U.N. control since the 1999 NATO war to protect ethnic Albanians from persecution. Kosovo's majority 1.9 million ethnic Albanians are demanding independence and are angry over what they view as occupation by NATO forces -- a dynamic that led to the attacks against Serb villages and the torching of at least one U.N. vehicle.

Early today, U.N. personnel in the town of Kosovska Mitrovica were evacuated because of the violence, Reuters reported.

"The way it escalated took everybody by surprise," said Florian Bieber, a Balkans expert and research associate for the European Center for Minority Issues. "There's a considerable degree of frustration among ethnic Albanians toward the United Nations. The ethnic Albanians see a failure of getting independence. There's a great feeling of being let down."

In New York, the U.N. Security Council met in emergency session Thursday at the request of the Serbian government.

"The recent events have highlighted the fragility of the structures and relationships in Kosovo," Secretary-General Kofi Annan said to those in attendance. "It shows that despite the progress that has been made since 1999, we have not come far enough."

International officials are concerned that tensions may spread throughout Serbia. Rioters in the capital of Belgrade set a 17th century mosque on fire early Thursday in retaliation for the attacks on Serbs in Kosovo. At the same time, a group marched on the U.S. Embassy, setting a vehicle ablaze and battling riot police. A second mosque was burned in the city of Nis as a mob chanted "death to all" Kosovo Albanians.

The unrest comes as Serbs throughout the region are bitter about high unemployment and disillusioned with the West, which they say rarely sympathizes with their problems and unfairly charges their politicians with war crimes. Nationalist Serbian political parties made gains in recent elections, and the violence in Kosovo -- where Serbs compose only 10% of the population -- could spark a revival of the kind of hate that roiled the Balkans throughout the 1990s.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica -- calling on the Security Council to stop the bloodshed -- led a procession of about 4,000 people through Belgrade on Thursday afternoon in an effort to quiet radical voices.

Many Serbs say the burning of mosques could incite Islamic extremists such as the Al Qaeda terrorist network and prevent the former Yugoslavia from eventually joining the European Union. But Serbs are also loath to relinquish Kosovo, which they consider sacred land where centuries ago their ancestors fought Turkish invaders.

"We are not fighting the Muslims. This is not a religious war," said Tomislav Nikolic, deputy leader of the ultra-right Serbian Radical Party, who condemned the mosque fires. He added that Serbs in Kosovo were "not attacked by Muslims but by the worst breed of terrorists."

The killing in Kosovo "is a painful illustration that the underlying ethnic conflicts are still vivid," said Henning Riecke, a security analyst for the German Council on Foreign Relations. "What is important is that foreign troops are on the ground. That will make a difference."

Ethnic clashes were less fierce Thursday, but a spate of church fires dotted Kosovo as NATO troops -- firing rubber bullets and tear gas -- were unable to deter ethnic Albanian arsonists. There also was an unconfirmed report of grenades fired at an Orthodox Church in the town of Lipljan.

The NATO contingent of 17,500 troops in Kosovo was reinforced by 190 U.S. and Italian soldiers deployed from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and 750 British troops are expected to arrive in a few days.

"The escalating violence in Kosovo must end," U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said. "It threatens the process of democratization and reconciliation."

The trouble began Wednesday when fighting broke out in several towns amid unsubstantiated rumors that Serbs in a village near Kosovska Mitrovica set a dog on three Albanian boys who fled into a river and drowned. A day earlier, a Serb man was killed in a drive-by shooting.

Most of Kosovo's Serbs -- whose population has fallen to about 100,000 from 200,000 before the war -- live sequestered in the north of the province.

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