Keeping lid on Kosovo powder keg

Weekend violence in divided Mitrovica was the worst since NATO airstrikes ended.

J. D. Luckie, once a Marine sergeant in Vietnam, projects an air of quiet command as he gathers with a half-dozen United Nations police officers on a slushy street in northern Kosovo. Clad in a flak jacket and blue UN helmet, he explains his plan for "extracting" an ethnic Albanian judge who wants to leave his apartment in the middle of a tense Serb neighborhood.

"We're going to get the crowd distracted," he says. Then officers, supported by Danish peacekeeping soldiers in nearby Humvees, will rush in and bring the man out. "We'll do the best we can," Mr. Luckie says.

Understaffed and underequipped, the international police force in Kosovo continues doing its best, despite being criticized as ineffective at fighting crime in the Serbian province.

Last week, this ethnically divided city erupted in the worst violence since NATO soldiers entered Kosovo on June 12 to end fighting between independence-minded ethnic Albanians and Serb government troops. On Thursday night, hundreds of Serb men, angered by a pair of attacks against Serbs, rampaged through the streets in unrest that left eight people dead.

The clashes clearly set back international efforts to bring peace to Kosovo, bringing a rush of top UN and NATO officials north from the regional capital, Pristina, to meet with local leaders and pledge more soldiers and police. Bernard Kouchner, Kosovo's UN administrator, said the UN would not give up its efforts to reconcile the two halves of Mitrovica.

The main problem, officials say, is heavily armed extremists on both sides.

Mejreme Hasani, an ethnic Albanian, says a Serb neighbor took her family in during last week's riots, but expressed fear lest the woman's benevolence become known. "She was asking me never to tell her name to the Serbs,"says Mrs. Hasani.

Both police and peacekeepers are struggling to restore order in Mitrovica. Soldiers in riot gear have clashed with angry ethnic Albanian crowds on the south side of the city. On the northern, chiefly Serb side, local Serb leaders held a rally Feb. 7 to protest what they termed an "epidemic of Albanian violence against Serbs." They called for the formation of a Serb protection force and for the return of the Yugoslav Army.

"It's become a war zone here," says Luckie, station commander on the north side of Mitrovica.

The town, once ethnically mixed, has resisted international efforts at integration. The southern half holds about 50,000 ethnic Albanians, some of whom fled homes to the north. All Serbs have been driven out. The north has 8,000 to 10,000 Serbs and about 2,000 ethnic Albanians. Many Serbs are determined to keep ethnic Albanians out, fearing the retaliatory violence that has afflicted Serbs across Kosovo.

Ethnic Albanians are just as determined to reclaim homes on the north side. They fear the Serbs want to divide Mitrovica and the region north of town, which is almost entirely Serb, from the rest of Kosovo.

On Feb. 2, a rocket attack killed two elderly Serbs riding a UN-guarded bus between Mitrovica and a group of isolated Serb villages. The next night, a grenade exploded in a cafe in northern Mitrovica, injuring more than a dozen Serbs and touching off what UN police describe as a night of confusion and fear.

"It happened so ... fast," says Luckie, on leave from the district attorney's office in Midland, Tex. "My first thought was to get my officers out safely. Then to rescue the injured and get them medical aid. That wasn't an easy job."

Robert Lough, from Tucson, Ariz., and his roommate waited for more than two hours, guns drawn, while Serbs rampaged through their building. "You could hear grenades going off on other floors, shooting, people crying," Mr. Lough says.

In another building, Serbs fatally shot an ethnic Albanian in the presence of a Jordanian officer. The police console themselves with accounts of how they managed, in some cases, to do their job. One ethnic Albanian family hid in the apartment of a French police officer. Yuri Nikonorov, an officer from Vladimir, Russia, says four ethnic Albanian women in nightgowns, clutching the hands of their children, pleaded for his help. "We put them into vehicles, and our guys brought them to the station," he says. "They saved their lives."

But the rampage was a hard lesson in both the difficulties and dangers of policing Kosovo. At a security conference in Munich, Germany, on Feb. 4, US Defense Secretary William Cohen said the violence showed that Europe must do more. "What we need is more [police] on the ground to get the institutions started that will establish the rule of law," he said. US officials and peacekeeping commanders say only 2,000 of a needed 6,000 civilian police have been sent to Kosovo, and that the European Union has not paid any of a promised $35 million contribution to the force.

The police here also have raged inwardly at French peacekeepers, whom they say failed them during the recent violence. Gen. Klaus Reinhardt, the German commander of peacekeeping forces in Kosovo, has defended French troops from criticism that they reacted too slowly. But several police officers say French soldiers refused to help them enter buildings where fellow police were trapped, and that at one moment during the rioting they withdrew armored personnel carriers from streets where the unrest was worst.

"Politics is not our end of it," Luckie says. "But we didn't feel we had proper support. We needed help, and we didn't get it."

In the case of the ethnic Albanian judge, the evacuation does not go as planned. As officers ready for action, their radios blurt more urgent calls: armed Serbs in an apartment building, officers in trouble - followed by a report of men seen carrying hand grenades.

"Let's roll," Luckie says. The judge would have to wait.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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