- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2000

The NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo is finding itself increasingly in violent conflict with the very group it came to save.
Officials from the U.N.-sponsored Kosovo Force (Kfor) said yesterday they had arrested some 40 ethnic Albanians, following a string of bloody confrontations in the ethnically divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica.
The wave of arrests followed gunfire exchanges Sunday that wounded two French soldiers, and left an Albanian sniper dead and five others wounded. Those attending the sniper's funeral yesterday confirmed he was an ex-member of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army, which battled the province's minority Serbs in a bid to break free of Yugoslavia.
"Let there be no doubt: Kfor will not tolerate attacks on its forces by anyone," said NATO Secretary-General George Robertson in Brussels yesterday, clearly focusing his remarks on Kosovo's Albanians.
"I would remind all parties in Kosovo that it was NATO that put an end to organized ethnic cleansing and, through Kfor, has worked to restore peace and stability for all ethnic groups in the province."
With 11,000 ethnic Serbs and about 90,000 ethnic Albanians, the greater Mitrovica metropolitan area may rank as the province's most ethnically mixed jurisdiction, especially since the majority of the area's Serbs fled large parts of Kosovo in the face of ethnic revenge attacks after last year's war.
But with the Serbs clustered in the city's northern district and Albanians facing them across a bridge on the Ibar River, Mitrovica has become the gravest challenge to date to the Clinton administration's stated aim of a peaceful, multiethnic Kosovo.
The latest spark was a Feb. 2 rocket attack on a bus that killed two Serbs under Kfor escort near Mitrovica. There have been almost daily revenge attacks on both sides, with Kfor reinforcing the city's French peacekeeping contingent and the United Nations saying yesterday it would beef up its civilian police force in the city.
U.S. officials said they never underestimated the long-term challenges in Kosovo, where ethnic animosities have deep historical roots. And they say Mitrovica, with its ragged boundaries between Serb and Albanian enclaves, isn't representative of the province as a whole.
"I would caution anyone from trying to find deeper meaning here other than that there are real problems to be worked through," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart yesterday.
He added: "We reject the idea that some Serbs have put forward, that the only way to move forward is partitioning" Kosovo into two ethnically separate camps.
But both Mr. Lockhart and State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said yesterday that Kosovo's Albanians shared at least some of the blame for the deadly fighting in and around Mitrovica.
Critics of last summer's NATO air war say the Mitrovica standoff was exactly the kind of ethnic morass they warned against.
Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's state-controlled press has played up growing ethnic Albanian violence, against both Kosovo's Serbs and Kfor.
And a top Russian general known for his hawkish views said the new violence in Kosovo only reinforces Moscow's strong doubts about NATO's entire campaign.
"Today, NATO is becoming a hostage of those separatists who tried to create their own independent state linked to Albania," Col.-Gen. Leonid Ivashov said in a radio interview in Russia yesterday.
Stratfor, the Austin, Texas-based global consulting firm, said in a new analysis that Kosovo has become the kind of foreign intervention U.S. policy-makers have dreaded since Vietnam "a civil war that offers no clear exit strategy."
"The war, after all, cannot end until one warring ethnic group or the other is completely expelled from the region," according to Stratfor. "Worse, this civil war is one in which the United States has no real stake."
Mitrovica itself appeared quiet yesterday, although some 3,000 ethnic Albanians turned out for the funeral of Avni Haredini, the sniper and former KLA member shot by French troops on Sunday.
Many in Kosovo believe that Mr. Milosevic was behind the recent violence. The region north of Mitrovica, a mining town 20 miles from the provincial capital of Pristina, is now a virtually pure Serbian ethnic enclave, the core of what could be a breakaway region that would ally with Belgrade.
The "pent-up hostility" in Kosovo "is clearly in some cases being stoked by President Milosevic in Belgrade who, when things go bad, feels like he had a good day," Mr. Rubin said yesterday.
But Mr. Lockhart said he knew of no "particular incident" linking Mr. Milosevic to the recent violence in Mitrovica.
Lt. Col. Henning Philipp, spokesman for the U.N. civilian administration in Kosovo, said he had not seen any evidence to support charges that Serbian paramilitaries had been infiltrating into northern Kosovo in recent days to bolster Belgrade's claims.
Beatrice Lacoste, a spokeswoman for the U.N. mission's Mitrovica office, said the city's Serbs have legitimate reason to fear.
"The Serbs have been systematically pushed out of the south of Kosovo and now they feel very much afraid," she told reporters in Mitrovica. "They don't want to be pushed out of Mitrovica. They fear an invasion of Albanians."
In a joint statement on Mitrovica, Kfor Commander Gen. Klaus Reinhardt and U.N. Kosovo civilian administrator Bernard Kouchner warned Kosovo residents: "Don't let extremists on both sides ruin this, your first great chance for peace and a prosperous future."

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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