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NATO Quells Uprisings in Kosovo

The alliance gets tough to stifle a flare-up of ethnic violence. Germany and France say they will send 1,000 additional peacekeepers.

March 20, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman and Zoran Cirjakovic | Special to The Times

BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro — The turmoil in Kosovo eased Friday as NATO, determined to prevent nationalist strife from again destabilizing the Balkans, deployed more troops into villages jolted by gunfire and streaked with smoke rising from Serbian homes set ablaze by ethnic Albanian mobs.

With its credibility in jeopardy after three days of violence, the alliance became more aggressive in quelling uprisings, especially in the ethnically divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica.

Germany and France announced that they were sending 1,000 additional peacekeepers to Kosovo, a province of Serbia. They will join an earlier reinforcement of 940 soldiers from the U.S., Italy and Britain.

"NATO asked us to send additional soldiers to Kosovo and we are doing so," German Defense Minister Peter Struck said.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization force -- now with about 20,000 soldiers -- has strengthened its patrols throughout the province. Some units have switched from firing rubber bullets to using standard ammunition. About 300 French soldiers swept through high-rise apartments, searching for gunmen and killing one sniper on the ethnic Albanian side of Kosovska Mitrovica.

Military commanders are taking "robust action to restore stability and to protect all citizens of Kosovo regardless of their ethnic identity," a NATO statement said. The bloodshed "is a tragic and misguided return to the kind of violence which has no place in Europe," it added.

Tensions between Serbs and the majority population of ethnic Albanians had been simmering for years. In 1999, NATO launched an air war against Yugoslavia, now known as Serbia and Montenegro, to protect the province's Albanians from government forces.

Widespread clashes and riots that erupted Wednesday have left 31 people dead and 500 injured. Scores of homes, Serbian Orthodox churches and ethnic Albanian mosques were burned in chaos that was reminiscent of the nationalist fervor that split the former Yugoslavia apart throughout the 1990s. The violence has chased more than 1,000 Serbs from their villages.

This scenario "almost amounts to ethnic cleansing and it cannot go on," Adm. Gregory Johnson, the U.S. commander of NATO forces in Southern Europe, told reporters in Kosovo. "That's why we came here in the first place."

The crux of the upheaval is Kosovo's unresolved fate. Since the 1999 war, Kosovo has been under United Nations control with NATO backing. The nearly 2 million ethnic Albanians making up 90% of the population are demanding independence. Serbs insist that the province should remain part of Serbia.

Talks on Kosovo's future are expected to begin next year. Serbian leaders, including Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, claim that the violence is being orchestrated by ethnic Albanians seeking to remove the 100,000 Serbs left in Kosovo. These Serbs, living mostly in the north, remain despite attacks by Albanian gangs and former guerrillas that scared away tens of thousands of others in recent years.

Most attacks have been against Serbs, but the province's ethnic Albanian prime minister, Bajram Rexhepi, has denied suggestions that systematic efforts are underway to rid Kosovo of Serbs. Both sides increasingly see the U.N. and NATO as unable to find a solution in a province with an unemployment rate of at least 40% and a long history of hatred.

"There are not many minorities left in Kosovo -- 220,000 have fled since 1999," said Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "We don't want to see any more go."

European leaders are concerned that continued unrest may undermine NATO's standing in the region, where international peacekeepers have been stationed since 1995, after the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A fire set by Muslim radicals at an Orthodox church in the Bosnian town of Bugojno offered a hint Friday that Kosovo's violence could spread to neighboring countries. Such troubling signs, according to analysts, are a reminder that even as NATO expands eastward to counter terrorism and other threats, it must not forget the Balkans.

"The recent flare-up of ethnic violence in Kosovo has shown our work is far from being done," Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase told a meeting of Eastern European and NATO officials Friday. "The lessons of recent Balkan history demonstrate that parts of Europe cannot enjoy enduring stability and prosperity while other parts of Europe are in turmoil. Europe cannot afford gray zones."

About 15,000 people led by Orthodox Church leaders demonstrated here in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, on Friday to condemn what they termed ethnic Albanian aggression in Kosovo.

The crowd chanted slogans such as "Kosovo is Serbia," and many urged Serbs to send forces to the region to protect their countrymen. The protest was part nationalist revival and part frustration over the U.N.'s failure to bring stability to Kosovo.

Under the protection of NATO and the United Nations, "Kosovo has become the most ethnically cleansed area of Europe," Serbian poet Matija Beckovic satirically told the crowd. "There are more Serbs in Chicago than there are Serbs in Kosovo."

Belgrade-based political analyst Ljubodrag Stojadinovic said: "Even now when the concept of a multiethnic Kosovo has failed, [NATO and the U.N.] will keep claiming it's successful.... They will not accept any criticisms or admit their mistakes."

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