Kosovo: Serbs Fight their Corner

UN fails to wrest northern Mitrovica from Belgrade's control

Kosovo: Serbs Fight their Corner

UN fails to wrest northern Mitrovica from Belgrade's control

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

A recent Serb attack on United Nations police officers in northern Kosovo highlights Belgrade's determination to maintain a firm foothold in the region.

Some 22 UN policemen were injured in the April 8 incident in northern Mitrovica, which lies close to the border with Serbia. An extremist group called the Bridge Watchers, which seeks to keep this part of the town under Serb control, claimed responsibility for the attack.

The UN Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, has consistently failed to establish effective jurisdiction over northern Mitrovica, which remains under an illegal Belgrade-controlled administration.

The April 8 clash was triggered by a UN police attempt to set up a roadblock near the Dolce Vita café, which the Bridge Watchers - named after the bridge over the Ibar which separates the town - use as a base. According to UNMIK sources, a Serb, thought to be a leader of the group, was arrested during the hand-grenade and sniper attack.

Television news footage and eyewitness accounts suggest a detachment of French K-For troops stationed nearby did not intervene during the battle. They have had a consistent non-interference policy since 2000 when clashes between Serbs and Albanians, triggered by extremists amongst the former, resulted in the death of 20 of the latter. The troops sealed off the Ibar bridge, effectively separating the two communities, in order to prevent major ethnic conflict spreading.

Last year, Albanians accused NATO troops of tolerating "ethnic cleansing" in Mitrovica and organised violent protests, stoning and looting their vehicles.

Former UN administrators, Bernard Kouchner and Hans Haekkerup, both presented plans to stabilise Mitrovica. But they were never properly implemented.

After one year of relative peace in the north, UNMIK took over law and order in the town from KFOR. And In March, the former's decision to close down the Belgrade-controlled administration in the north of the town and open a community office instead sparked mass protests amongst the Serbs.

Widespread condemnation of the April 8 attack has not cooled Serb feelings. According to UNMIK, all international civilian personnel have been withdrawn from the area while some policemen there are effectively trapped inside their own headquarters.

Meanwhile, Serbian demands for the release of Slavoljub Jovic, the Serb arrested in the attack on the international police, has widened into a campaign for the formal partition of Mitrovica into Albanian and Serbian municipalities.

Serbian deputy premier Nebosja Covic, on a visit to Kosovo last week, called on Serbs to halt attacks on UNMIK but backed their demands for the partition of Mitrovica. This week, speaking at the UN Security Council, he proposed the creation of ethnically-based entities similar to the ones in Bosnia.

Many Kosovar Albanians fear calls for the division of the city are a prelude to Belgrade demands for the separation of Kosovo itself. The Albanian community is pressing for UNMIK to disband the Bridge Watchers and bring the north of Mitrovica under UNMIK jurisdiction once and for all.

Serbs from other enclaves in Kosovo are also uncomfortable with the idea of partition because they feel their own position within a rump Kosovo could be further weakened. Unlike their compatriots in Mitrovica, Serbs from other areas have no direct connection with Serbia. There is also the hope that Belgrade may one day regain control of all the region.

UNMIK, meanwhile, has made clear a Serb municipality in Mitrovica is out of the question. In response to Kosovo Albanian concern that there's a trends towards the partition of Kosovo, the international administration's current head, Michael Steiner, said that as long as he is in place there would be no such division.

He added that he has a plan to solve the problem but won't say what it is. Analysts say that if he does have one, he'd better put it in place otherwise the Bridge Watchers and their like will get their way.

Arben Qirezi is a regular IWPR contributor.

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