More NATO troops deployed in Kosovo

Recent uprisings have left 31 dead and dozens of buildings burned

March 20, 2004|By Jeffrey Fleishman and Zoran Cirjakovic | Jeffrey Fleishman and Zoran Cirjakovic,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro - The turmoil in Kosovo eased yesterday as NATO, determined to prevent nationalist strife from again destabilizing the Balkans, deployed more troops into villages marred by gunfire and streaked with smoke rising from Serbian homes set ablaze by ethnic Albanian mobs.

With its credibility in jeopardy after three days of violence, the alliance became more aggressive in quelling uprisings, especially in the ethnically divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica.

Germany and France announced that they were sending 1,000 additional peacekeepers to Kosovo. They will join an earlier reinforcement of 940 soldiers from the United States, Italy and Britain.

"NATO asked us to send additional soldiers to Kosovo and we are doing so," said German Defense Minister Peter Struck.

NATO - with a force now of about 20,000 soldiers - has strengthened its patrols throughout the province. Some units have switched from firing rubber bullets to using standard ammunition. About 300 French soldiers swept through high-rise apartments searching for gunmen and killing one sniper on the ethnic Albanian side of Kosovska Mitrovica.

Military commanders are taking "robust action to restore stability and to protect all citizens of Kosovo regardless of their ethnic identity," according to a NATO statement. It said the bloodshed "is a tragic and misguided return to the kind of violence which has no place in Europe."

Tensions between Serbs and the majority population of ethnic Albanians had been simmering for years since NATO forces went to war with Serbia and Montenegro, then known as Yugoslavia, to protect the province's Albanians from government forces.

Widespread clashes and riots that erupted Wednesday left 31 people dead and 500 injured. Scores of homes, Serbian Orthodox churches and ethnic Albanian mosques were burned in chaos that was reminiscent of the nationalist fervor that split apart the former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s. The violence has chased more than 1,000 Serbs from their villages.

This scenario "almost amounts to ethnic-cleansing and it cannot go on," Adm. Gregory Johnson, the U.S. commander for NATO forces for Southern Europe, told reporters in Kosovo. "That's why we came here in the first place."

The crux of the upheaval is Kosovo's unresolved fate. Since the 1999 war, Kosovo has been under United Nations control with NATO backing. The nearly 2 million ethnic Albanians making up 90 percent of the population are demanding independence. Serbs insist the province should remain part of Serbia.

Talks on Kosovo's future are expected to begin next year. Serbian leaders, including Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, claim the violence is being orchestrated by ethnic Albanians seeking to remove the 100,000 Serbs left in Kosovo. These Serbs, living mostly in the north, remain despite attacks by Albanian gangs and former guerrillas that scared away tens of thousands of others in recent years.

Most attacks have been against Serbs, but the province's ethnic Albanian prime minister, Bajram Rexhepi, denied suggestions that there are systematic efforts to cleanse Kosovo.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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