Mitrovica: A Bridge Too Far for NATO?

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Never mind the spin, NATO's war over Kosovo left the conflict surrounding that territory far from resolved. And with the Western alliance both flagging in its resolve to keep an increasingly messy peace and floundering in its efforts to define the purpose of that peace, ethnic bloodletting is threatening to erupt once more in Kosovo. Some 10,000 ethnic-Albanian protesters began marching Monday on the flashpoint town of Mitrovica, where nine people have been killed in clashes between gunmen on the Serb and Albanian sides of the Ibar River, which divides the town.

Even more alarming, though, than the tensions that are sure to be inflamed by the arrival of Albanian "reinforcements" is the apparent disarray among the KFOR peacekeeping forces. A KFOR sweep to search for weapons on the Serb side of town Sunday broke down into chaos as Serbs accused the U.S. forces carrying out the raid of heavy-handedness, while the French contingent that commands the divided town apparently failed to maintain order — with the result that the Americans were eventually ordered to leave amid a volley of bricks and bottles hurled by protesters, leaving NATO looking decidedly ineffectual. U.S. troops returned to the Serb enclave Monday, while other NATO troops searched for weapons on the Albanian side.

KFOR has warned the Albanian protesters marching from Pristina that they won't be allowed to enter Mitrovica, but whether the peacekeepers maintain their resolve in the face of anticipated Albanian defiance remains to be seen. And the situation could easily escalate, since Mitrovica, situated in northern Kosovo, is not an isolated Serb enclave — its Serb community has relatively unfettered access to the border with Serbia proper, and a supply of men and material from Belgrade has emboldened the city's Serb community to stand its ground. But while Serbs and Albanians appear to be spoiling for a fight, NATO may be losing its appetite for an increasingly complex and thankless peacekeeping mission. After all, the traditional role of peacekeepers is to keep mavericks from restarting a war that political leaders on both sides want to end. The problem in Kosovo is that neither side appears to be ready for peace.