A Bridge Too Far in Kosovo

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The shabby riverside neighborhood of "little Bosnia" just north of the Ibar River in Kosovska Mitrovica has been living up to its name in recent weeks. It was here that a few weeks ago Serb militants went door to door attacking Kosovo Albanians and driving more than 1,000 from their homes to the southern part of the city. Violence has left at least six people dead, while two French peacekeepers were wounded by Albanian sniper fire. The neighborhood, together with the adjoining Knaz Milos area, is a staging ground for Serbian paramilitaries, police and other self-proclaimed "guardsmen" of northern Kosovo. One snowy morning last week, a nattily dressed Serb, who boasted of serving in a murderous paramilitary unit in Bosnia, picked his way through the mud and pointed to three sniper nests overlooking the southern part of Mitrovica, linked to the north by three bridges. "Within arm's reach," he said, were stockpiles of grenades, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and mortar launchers. Later, Oliver Ivanovic, head of the Serbian National Council, said: "We have enough guns and equipment to start World War III."

"Mitrovica," says Washington's U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, "is the most dangerous place in Europe today." The city is home to Kosovo's biggest remaining concentration of Serbs, all but a handful of whom live north of the river. They hold on partly because of the region's resources--a lead and zinc mine--but also because it backs onto Serbia proper and represents a toehold in the province for Belgrade. NATO's supreme commander, General Wesley Clark, while calling urgently for reinforcements for the embattled province, asserted that Serb "military units, gangs and thugs sent by Belgrade" were part of a deliberate strategy by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to destabilize Mitrovica and Kosovo as a whole. In Washington the State Department said state security forces in Belgrade were providing direct surveillance assistance to Serb paramilitaries in Mitrovica.

Yet so far, NATO peacekeepers have done surprisingly little to lessen hard-line Serb influence in the city. Even last week's impressive show of force by U.S., British and other contingents lacked follow-through. Hundreds of soldiers stormed through the city hunting for weapons. "They just kept on kicking doors down, pushing us around and tearing down the house," says Bojana Jeculic, 17, a Serb in the north who had never seen an American soldier until four burst into her home and ransacked the place. But in the end, the search turned up no more than a few dozen rifles.

In the biggest find, a platoon of U.S. soldiers working with U.N. police discovered a cache of 10 Kalashnikovs, nine blocks of C-4 explosives and a World War II bolt-action rifle hidden in a row of lockers in a technical school building. There they confronted a prominent Serb paramilitary leader who tried to stop them from confiscating the arms. In the ensuing scuffle, the Serb leader, known as Pagi, and three of his aides were subdued with pepper spray but then whisked away by their drivers. "We should have nabbed him," conceded General Klaus Reinhardt, Kosovo's NATO commander, the next day. "It was wrong not to." Later in the week, Pagi--whom U.N. sources confirmed is a former Serbian special forces operative and now a ringleader of radical Serbian militants in Mitrovica, with direct ties to Belgrade--was spotted working as a translator for French peacekeepers and waving a kfor identity card.

The 2,500-strong French peacekeeping contingent that has been responsible for Mitrovica since the NATO deployment has come under heavy criticism over the past month from U.N. police and Kosovo Albanians for apparent acquiescence in the ethnic division of the city--and an allegedly pro-Serb bias. Last week several Serb militants showed off radios, French-made tear-gas antidotes, flashlights and steel batons which one claimed he had received from "French soldiers of Serbian pedigree." A 57-year-old miner attending a protest accused French soldiers of standing by while he was thrown out of his family home by Serb thugs. "The French are the new ethnic cleansers," he said.

"Rubbish," scoffed a spokesman for the French contingent Lieut. Colonel Patrick Chanliau, who said the suggestions of complicity in particular are "an attempt by Serb radicals to carry out Milosevic's plan of fragmenting kfor unity." Still, few dispute the fact that NATO's policy in Mitrovica has until now been to keep confrontation--and the potential retaliation--to a minimum.

Mitrovica's problems were not created by the peacekeepers. The city has become a symbol of territorial wrongs for both Serbs and Kosovo Albanians. But as NATO decides whether or not to send reinforcements--Clark has suggested that troop strength should be restored to last year's level of 50,000 from its current 37,000--it might also consider a tougher line in Mitrovica. At a demonstration organized by ethnic Albanians to storm the city's main bridge, a placard read: "Mitrovica is Kosovo." That should give NATO pause.

Reported by Anthee Carassava/Mitrovica