Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
France's Kosovo Dilemma
French General Pierre de Saqui de Sannes frequently looks tired and troubled when out in the streets of northern Mitrovica, both when directing his forces against hostile crowds of ethnic Albanians and when being cheered by jubilant groups of Serbs.
Trying to play the neutrality card in Mitrovica is a tough job. In the latest outbreak of inter-communal violence, on March 7, 16 French peacekeepers were among 40 people injured when Albanians and Serbs clashed in the Serb-dominated north of the town.
French troops have come under heavy fire, both from a local press quick to pounce on any failure in the ethnic powder-keg and from the international media. The main charge levelled at them is that they favour the Serbs.
After enraged Serbs drove American troops out of northern Mitrovica under a hail of stones, the crowd cheered the arrival of French troops to replace their US fellow peacekeepers, chanting "France" with almost the same relish that they bellowed "Serbia."
General Saqui de Sannes forces have faced accusations from UN police of failing to intervene to assist their colleagues and Albanian families caught up in Serb rioting.
UN police and KFOR officers from other nations have also accused the French of failing to impose themselves forcefully enough on the Serbs of northern Mitrovica, allowing them to run their own parallel defence groups, which terrified local Albanians find extremely intimidating.
The French response to accusations of bias has been heavy-handed, further provoking the ire of the press while doing little to reverse the flow of Albanians from northern Mitrovica.
The dilemma facing peacekeepers is how to stamp out the violence of extremists without provoking the resentment of the broader population and sparking further polarisation of the communities.
Human rights workers and military officials insist that most ordinary people in Kosovo want to simply get on with their lives but are constantly being rabble-roused or intimidated by hardcore elements on both sides of the ethnic divide.
Analysts have varied in their interpretation of the ongoing friction, attributing it to die-hard resentment between the two communities, jockeying for power among extremists groups or a struggle over the nearby Trepca mines, currently inactive but once the main source of Yugoslavia's mineral wealth.
The glaring problem is that KFOR's combat troops, be they French, British or American, are not policemen and are neither trained nor equipped to carry out effective law enforcement.
In the recent clashes between Serbs and American troops, a hostile crowd pelted a line-up of US-troops with snowballs. As tempers frayed, a US soldier levelled his assault rifle at a snowball-wielding Serb before realising the futility of his gesture.
German and American troops have been stoned when carrying out searches for illegal weapons, raising questions of whether openly confrontational policing methods are a viable option in so volatile a situation.
Some ethnic Albanian leaders have called for British troops to bring their anti-terrorist experience to bear in the north. But critics question whether they would be any more effective than the French. They cite the fact that in Pristina, the heart of the British-run sector, the Serb population has dwindled from around 20,000 to just a few hundred since KFOR arrived.
US senators have already expressed concern at the use of their troops in so unstable an area, raising the question of whether Washington would be able to politically endure the casualties that Paris has sustained.
Until the UN can provide the full complement of 6,000 police officers demanded by its local administrators, there is little hope of calming the heated communities on the local level
In the meantime, General Saqui de Sannes is playing his cards cautiously, doing his best to navigate through the ethnic minefield of Mitrovica.
James Hider is a journalist living in Pristina.
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