Fourteen dead as ethnic violence sweeps Kosovo
The worst ethnic violence in Kosovo since the end of the 1999 conflict erupted in the partitioned town of Kosovska Mitrovica on Wednesday, leaving hundreds wounded and at least 14 people dead.
UN peacekeepers and Nato troops scrambled to contain a raging gun battle between Serbs and ethnic Albanians.
UN jeeps were set ablaze and armoured cars destroyed by stoning as furious Albanians stormed the Serbian half of the divided town after the bodies of two Albanian children were recovered from the river Ibar, which runs through Mitrovica. They had drowned after reportedly jumping into the river to escape Serbs who were chasing them with a dog.
“We found two bodies, one last night and one this morning and we are still looking for one child who is missing,” said Tracy Becker, spokesperson for the UN police in Mitrovica.
Reports from hospitals in the region said some 300 people were wounded in the fighting, while at least four Albanians and two Serbs were shot dead. Around a dozen French peacekeepers were injured, two seriously, a UN spokesman said.
The eruption of violence was fuelled by tit-for-tat incidents in recent days and showed how tense Kosovo remains, despite almost five years of UN peacekeeping.
With Albanian hardliners in the ascendant in Kosovo and a new nationalist government in power in Serbia, the portents are dismal.
Clashes were also reported in three other areas, with Albanians reportedly torching Serb homes and UN police struggling to separate the two sides. “This is a very dangerous situation. This is very large scale,” a UN police spokesperson said.
As the clashes swept across the province last night, the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, warned that the violence “jeopardises the stability of Kosovo and the security of its people”.
Pleurat Sejdiu of the Kosovo health ministry told Reuters: “There are 14 people killed: six in Mitrovica, three in Lipljan, three in Caglavica, one in Pec and one in Urosevac.”
The recovery of the children’s bodies from the river Ibar electrified Albanians, who marched on Mitrovica and sought to storm UN- patrolled bridge crossings into the Serbian area.
The Serbian community, meanwhile, was already in a state of agitation after the wounding of a Serbian youth in a drive-by shooting, apparently by an Albanian. On Tuesday angry Serbs blocked main roads in the province.
Polish troops and French police used teargas and rubber bullets to try to disperse the crowds in Mitrovica. Gunmen on both sides used automatic weapons and grenades.
The trouble comes despite recent and rare negotiations between Serbs and Albanians on social and economic issues aimed at building a dialogue.
Extreme nationalists determined to keep Kosovo part of Serbia were victorious in recent Serbian elections, but were unable to form a government. The new government under the more moderate nationalist Vojislav Kostunica, tacitly supported by members of the former Milosevic regime, has in effect called for the ethnic partition of Kosovo, prompting Albanian hardliners from the KLA, the former guerrilla force, to talk of forming military units to resist the campaign.
Kostunica came into office a fortnight ago, calling for the “cantonisation” of Kosovo, a codeword for ethnic partition. The notion was dismissed by Harri Holkeri, the UN’s Finnish governor of the province. “Partition is not an issue we can discuss,” he said.
The Serbian prime minister has since changed his language to emphasise “decentralisation”. On Tuesday in Belgrade he told a British official that human rights abuses against Serbs in Kosovo were a daily occurrence, and that the only way to stabilise the situation was through “decentralisation and institutional guarantees” for Serbs and other non-Albanian minorities.
While the Albanian majority suffered under the regime of Slobodan Milosevic before the “ethnic cleansing” campaign of 1998-99, which was halted by Nato airpower, the remaining Serbian minority has been in a perilous position, regularly assaulted by Albanian thugs after Serbia lost the war.
The Polish ombudsman for human rights in Kosovo, Marek Antoni Nowicki, told a Council of Europe meeting in Paris on Tuesday that the human rights situation in Kosovo was far from the “minimum democratic standard”. - Guardian Unlimited Â