- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2000

France is sending 600 to 700 more troops to help quell the rising violence in a divided city in northern Kosovo, and the United States may send in a Marine unit, U.S. and French officials said yesterday.

France has decided to dispatch an Army battalion to the city of Kosovska Mitrovica, in a part of Kosovo controlled by French peacekeepers, French Defense Minister Alain Richard said at a news conference with William S. Cohen, the U.S. defense secretary.

Mr. Cohen said no decision has been made on whether more American troops would go. But a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a Marine Expeditionary Unit was on standby for possible movement into the French sector of Kosovo.

American paratroopers swooped down on the Serbian part of the city at dawn yesterday, arresting eight persons and seizing weapons in a surprise raid only three days after Serbs drove them away in a hail of stones.

As a further sign of NATO resolve to maintain control, peacekeepers announced plans to start moving ethnic Albanians back to their homes in the Serbian-controlled part of Mitrovica, north of the Ibar River.

The peacekeepers also said demonstrations would be banned in a wide area encompassing both Serbian and ethnic Albanian-dominated neighborhoods.

As French troops surrounded the search area, about 300 troops of the U.S. 504th Airborne Infantry backed by armored vehicles and in full battle gear crossed the Ibar River at dawn and swept through "Little Bosnia," an ethnically mixed neighborhood, searching house to house for weapons.

A NATO spokesman, British Flight Lt. Neville Clayton, said the Americans seized a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, rifles, grenades and ammunition.

It was the first time the Americans had been on the river's north side since they and German forces were driven away Sunday by stone-throwing Serbs during a weapons search. On Monday, they were forced to break off a search because of the violent demonstration.

"We're trying to send a message that Kfor can operate and move freely north of the Ibar and anywhere in Kosovo they want to go," said Maj. Erik Gunhus, an American spokesman.

The rising tensions in Mitrovica over the past three weeks prompted the North Atlantic Council, NATO's governing body, to call a special meeting for tomorrow in Brussels to discuss Kosovo, the southern province of Serbia from which Yugoslav forces were pushed by NATO's 1999 bombing campaign.

A U.S. official said Army Gen. Wesley Clark and the German general in charge of the NATO peacekeeping operation in Kosovo had requested three additional NATO battalions for the French sector. That would be roughly 1,800 to 2,000 soldiers, in addition to the approximately 30,000 NATO troops in all of Kosovo now.

Mr. Richard said France immediately would dispatch one battalion. NATO authorities were to meet later this week to decide how to allocate the other two battalions that Gen. Clark has said are needed to control the ethnic violence.

Several NATO countries had designated units as a strategic reserve in case a problem such as the one in Mitrovica arose. The reinforcements include units from Italy and Poland, plus the U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Mr. Cohen said reinforcing NATO's peacekeeping operations will complicate efforts by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to heighten ethnic tensions in Kosovo in defiance of the June agreement that ended NATO's bombing.

"Milosevic will take advantage of every opportunity he can" to undermine NATO's authority and to foment ethnic unrest, Mr. Cohen said.

There are 30,000 NATO troops and 7,000 soldiers from non-NATO countries now attempting to keep the peace in Kosovo. Others are stationed in neighboring Macedonia.

Concerned that the unrest could expand to areas outside Kosovo, Macedonia has put part of its armed forces stationed near the border with Serbia on a higher alert because of violence and tension in Kosovo, army spokesman Gjorgji Trendafilov said yesterday.

Gen. Clark and NATO Secretary-General George Robertson have made it clear they believe the Yugoslav leader is behind the current tensions in Kosovo. Both pledge to get tough on any party, Serb or ethnic Albanian, that attempts to stir unrest.

The large Serbian population of Mitrovica makes it a flash point for violence and a likely place to infiltrate agents from the north, NATO officials say. American, British and Canadian troops have been dispatched to the city to help the French, who have been under increasing pressure.

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