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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Serbs Fire on KFOR in Divided Town




MITROVICA, Yugoslavia -- French troops in Kosovo arrested three Serb civilians on Wednesday after a gunbattle triggered when peacekeepers rushed to help ethnic Albanians threatened by Serbs in a divided town.


The violence showed the dangers facing the new KFOR peace force in a province volatile after the Serbian military pulled out under the heat of NATO air raids, allowing Kosovo Albanians to return to their homes and confrontations with remaining Serbs.


Many ethnic Albanians seek revenge for mass executions and deportations by Serbian security forces and the latest evidence of Kosovo's killing fields emerged with French troops' discovery of a grave with up to 180 bodies near Mitrovica.


Four European Union foreign ministers got their first look at postwar Kosovo on Wednesday. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook was sickened when shown charred, skeletal bodies in a village where 105 men and boys were apparently massacred.


"This is where you see the results of Milosevic's orders and this is why he must be brought to justice," he said. "If I had any doubts about the justice of the campaign to liberate Kosovo from this terror, they have been banished."


Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's assets in Switzerland were frozen Wednesday by the Bern government at the request of the UN war crimes tribunal that indicted him and four top aides in May. Their assets were frozen too.


Mitrovica's effective division into hostile Serbian and Albanian neighborhoods has presented French troops with one of the toughest challenges in KFOR, which has the task of restoring a safe environment for civilian life.


Northern Kosovo has a significant, dug-in Serb population unlike the east, south and west - now controlled by France's British, American, Italian and German partners in KFOR - which are more heavily ethnic Albanian with few Serbs left.


A French army spokesman said Serbs opened fire early Wednesday at a French patrol that had gone to assist ethnic Albanians being evicted from their homes in central Mitrovica, where Serbs still form a majority.


That shooting broke out was no surprise as Kosovo remains swamped with weapons even after the military pullout.


A gunbattle between the French and Serbs ensued, followed by the arrest of three Serb civilians, the French officer said.


"Our priority was to protect human lives," French Defense Minister Alain Richard told Reuters Television as he arrived in Mitrovica to visit the French KFOR headquarters.


He said preventing killings and looting had been difficult so far because only 2,000 French soldiers had reached a sector stretching 60 by 50 kilometers.


On Tuesday, French troops found the bodies of two Serb civilians, each with a bullet in the head. Two others had been killed and one wounded on a road south of Mitrovica.


NATO Supreme Commander General Wesley Clark said Tuesday that KFOR's planned 55,000 troop strength might not be enough, and he called for contributing states to speed up deployments in the face of a serious security vacuum in Kosovo.


Cook and the foreign ministers of Italy, Germany and France were in Kosovo to inspect evidence of war crimes and to have talks on reconstructing the devastated Serbian province.


In the western village of Velika Krusa, Cook wore a white protective suit and mask as he toured a farmyard where British pathologists have found the charred remains of around 40 people.


He said he felt "rising indignation against the people who had ordered these atrocities."


Since being deployed in northern Kosovo, French soldiers acting on information from local residents have found about 20 possible mass grave sites.


The French Foreign Ministry said a 10-member team of forensic and police experts would leave on Thursday for Kosovo to investigate war crimes, mostly in the French-run sector.


UN tribunal investigators are also fanning through Kosovo.


The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was seeking access to a "considerable number" of ethnic Albanian political prisoners taken out of Kosovo by withdrawing Serbian forces.


In the first official word on the fate of the missing ethnic Albanians, the agency said it hoped to receive permission soon from Belgrade authorities to see the jailed ethnic Albanians.


In Belgrade, an independent opinion pollster said Milosevic's popularity had declined to 15 percent from about 40 percent but he was still the most popular politician in Serbia due to the lack of a credible democratic alternative.


But billionaire financier George Soros predicted Milosevic would soon be forced from office if Yugoslavs saw that his presence excluded their country from reconstruction programs.