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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

French Troops Try to Bridge Ethnic Gap

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia -- The bridge over the Ilbar River has been dubbed "Pont D'Austerlitz'' by French peacekeeping troops after the stately bridge in Paris.

But for the people of this mining town in Kosovo, it's more akin to the Austerlitz battlefield of Napoleon's day.

Serbs hold one side, sitting in chairs outside the Dolce Vita bar listening to Italian pop songs blaring from loudspeakers. Young ethnic Albanians mill around on the other end. Each group keeps a wary eye on the other.

The French marines must escort Albanians to their homes in the Serbian sector of town and Serbs who want to go to the Albanian side of town.

The two sides say they can never live together again, and troubles are frequent.

A change in the music at the Dolce Vita to Serbian nationalist songs evokes cheers and applause on one side, howls from the other.

When a crowd of Albanians starts across the bridge taunting their foes with curses in Serbian, the peacekeepers of the 21st Marine Infantry Regiment out of Frejus, France, rush to keep the two groups separated. The crowds are pushed back, and the troops withdraw, to await the next flare-up.

In this bitter stew of grievances and fear, both sides accuse the French of doing nothing to calm the town.

"They say NATO will do everything, but they do nothing. The French are the most guilty,'' said Besart Bajraktari, an 18-year-old Albanian.

Most of the town's Albanians believe Serbian paramilitary forces guilty of atrocities have taken refuge in the Serbian quarter.

On a recent Saturday, around 200 French marines with armored personnel carriers and jeeps were needed to escort a bus carrying 50 or so Serbs to the Albanian quarter so they could attend a Serbian Orthodox service at their church and visit the cemetery.

On the same day, a handful of peacekeepers was jeered while escorting two Albanian women to their apartment in the Serbian quarter. When they arrived, none of the building's Serbian residents were willing to produce a key to the entrance.

In another incident, Milovan Mirkovic, 76, a Serb living in the Albanian quarter, was kicked in the back by Albanian youths in the town's pedestrian district. Mirkovic lost his balance and fell, suffering a broken nose and cuts and bruises on his head. No bystander tried to help.

Lieutenant Colonel Philippe Tanguy, a spokesman for the peacekeepers, said the marines' aim is to prevent violence before undertaking the delicate task of trying to help people cross to the other side.

"We are determined to carry out our mission, but step by step,'' Tanguy said.