Seeking to soothe the outrage of local Serbs, Kosovo's chief UN administrator said yesterday that NATO's takeover of a lead smelter at the Trepca mine complex was to their advantage and not a plot to help the province's majority ethnic Albanians.
"This community will have to understand that we will work for the benefit of all Kosovo and Serbs as well," Bernard Kouchner said as he toured the smelter. "We are acting in the interests of the Serbs."
About 1,500 Serbs protested the closure yesterday, a day after as many as 3,000 Serbs marched through the streets in their part of Kosovska Mitrovica, a city divided into Serb and ethnic Albanian sections and the site of frequent clashes.
"The takeover of Trepca is just part of the strategy by Kouchner and the Albanians to ethnically cleanse Kosovo," declared Milan Ivanovic, a local Serb leader.
Zvecan is near Kosovska Mitrovica and about 30 miles north of Pristina, the provincial capital. The plant, a jumble of dilapidated buildings, was the primary source of income for the region's dwindling Serb community, and many Serbs fear the takeover means their jobs there will be lost and ethnic Albanian workers will replace them.
NATO-led peacekeepers moved in Monday to halt production at the smelter, which UN officials say pumps toxic waste into the air.
Mr. Kouchner closed the facility until repairs could be made that would reduce emissions measured at 200 times the accepted World Health Organization norms.
"It was impossible to tolerate this pollution, because ... [of] the very high level of lead," he said, adding that the UN plans to spend $16 million to refurbish the operation. "I don't know how long it will take us ... months perhaps," Kouchner said after touring the Zvecan industrial site. "This place is in desperate state; this is like the 19th century."
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