Milosevic's growing hold on northern Kosovo troubling

U.N. officials fear split in province if troops can't extend zone of authority


KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia -- Senior Western and United Nations officials say they are increasingly worried about a de facto partition of Kosovo, and they fear that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic may be using the north of the province to undermine international efforts to bring Kosovo peace and normality.

In a vivid and troubling way, these officials say, Serbia proper begins at the heavily guarded bridge in Kosovska Mitrovica, some 30 miles south of Kosovo's border with the rest of Serbia.

French troops guard the bridge between the predominantly Serbian northern part of the city and the ethnic Albanian south, effectively dividing the city. What began as an effort to prevent violence has turned into a strategic problem for the NATO-led peacekeeping force and U.N. officials who are supposed to govern Kosovo.

Peacekeeping and U.N. officials have not extended their authority in any meaningful way north of the bridge, officials say, fearful of both enraging and frightening the Serbs and emboldening the Albanians. How they might assert some control has become a significant topic of discussion not only in Pristina, the Kosovo capital where U.N. and peacekeeping officials are meeting on the issue, but also in key NATO capitals.

There is evidence that Milosevic has been helping to organize security and ordinary life in the northern part of the city and in northern Kosovo itself, assigning at least some police and military intelligence officers to the city and the areas of Leposavic, Zubin Potok and Zvecan, the Western officials say.

Most believe that Belgrade is using the north, which it supplies with money and goods, to try to destabilize Kosovo or to prevent its normalization after Milosevic's security forces killed thousands of Albanians last spring and drove hundreds of thousands more from the province as NATO bombed Yugoslavia.

Milosevic appears to be trying to make sure that at least a part of Kosovo remains in Serbian hands and under some governmental influence. Belgrade feels that Western governments have flouted Serbian sovereignty over the province and fears that Kosovo will eventually seek real independence.

The possibility of a de facto partition of Kosovo -- the north contains access to the Trepca mines, one of the few valuable resources of the province -- had always been one of the options Milosevic might choose to exercise in a career marked by constant maneuvering for convenience, abandoning and embracing goals as needed to survive in power. Belgrade also regards the protection of the Serbian population in Kosovo as part of its responsibility.

"We simply cannot say we have accomplished the basic task of the military operation until every person in Kosovo can at least go home," said a senior Western official in Pristina. "It is not a stable situation, and we cannot allow it to harden. The trend toward the de facto separation of the north from the rest of Kosovo needs to be halted."

A senior U.N. official said the peacekeeping force "hasn't finished its job in the north."

"It's vital," he said, "that we go hard after the extremists of both sides, who are building up their resources and playing with the population in the middle."

Another senior U.N. official said there was urgency to the discussions. "There has been a rapid and progressive hardening of Serb positions, some of it externally driven," he said. "It is clearly encouraged if not always orchestrated by Belgrade."

While peacekeepers and police patrol in the north, French troops are reluctant to act in a way that could provoke serious violence, the first U.N. official said, adding that the former head of the peacekeeping force, Gen. Mike Jackson, "didn't want to do it, either."

The new commander, Gen. Klaus Reinhardt of Germany, is also finding it difficult to establish clear authority over the various national commands of the multinational force, peacekeeping officials say.

Partition "could undermine the whole project of Kosovo," said the Western official, and it would have "a corrosive effect" on efforts to set up a successful self-governing Kosovo.

He and others have been arguing that the peacekeeping force should do a better job at interrogating and screening Serbs who cross into Kosovo. A U.N. order, made here in August with Mitrovica in mind, allows the expulsion from Kosovo of anyone who creates trouble or who has no clear business in the province.

There is a narrow security zone between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia. But it is difficult for the peacekeeping force to arbitrarily stop Serbs who want to enter, particularly if they only seem suspicious, a senior peacekeeping officer said.

"We check for weapons, but if people have proper identity documents, what can we do?" the officer asked.

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