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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Backbone Needed to Calm Mitrovica Cauldron

The divided northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica has long been regarded as the flash point most likely to sink the international peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. Yet Kosovo's top international officials have allowed the long-smoldering violence there to explode, underscoring again how their failure of will promotes the agenda of the man whose downfall NATO sought : indicted war criminal and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Mitrovica is not just another Balkan cauldron of centuries-old hatreds. This industrial city straddling the polluted Ibar River is a linchpin in Belgrade's "Greater Serbia'' strategy of expelling all non-Serbs from the region.

Milosevic has never had more than a propaganda interest in northern Kosovo's historically significant monasteries. But he does have a keen financial interest in the Trepca complex of mines and downstream processing facilities, including a smelter in Zvecan, which is widely believed to have served the regime as an efficient money-laundering mechanism. Since the deployment of NATO's Kosovo Force, or KFOR, Trepca's Serb directors have continued to operate the Zvecan smelter to process ores trucked in by foreign companies still doing business with the regime.

Mitrovica is Milosevic's only remaining foothold in Kosovo, and it is there that he has decided to call the bluff of the international community, in flagrant violation of the peace accord.With the apparent acquiescence of the French KFOR command, which has been loath to risk casualties, and the local UN administrators, Milosevic continues to send Serbian police and paramilitary forces across the border and into Mitrovica. These operatives monitor, terrorize and expel Albanian civilians who dareto live on, or even to venture into, the Serb side of town, where the hospital and university are located.

For months, French commanders have denied there were Serbian police or paramilitary troops in the area or near the Trepca complex, despite reliable reports to the contrary. French soldiers guarding the pedestrian bridge over the Ibar would shrug as Serb toughs denied entry to Albanians and foreigners wishing to enter north Mitrovica. When French troops escorted Serb laborers to work in a Trepca-run battery factory located on the southern, Albanian side, they stood by as the Serbs made off with the facility's heavy processing equipment.

After last week's wounding of two French soldiers, the death of an Albanian shot by the French, who refused to transport the wounded man to the French field hospital for treatment, and Albanian outrage at what they perceive as blatant French partisanship, the French troops guarding the bridge were replaced by British troops seasoned in Belfast. German, Dutch and Italian reinforcements were sent in, too, and, on Thursday, the first of 300 UN international police were deployed to Mitrovica.

But the French remain in overall command of the region, and, from all appearances, German KFOR General Klaus Reinhardt continues to accept their assessments of the situation in Mitrovica. More worrisome, Reinhardt and an increasing number of frustrated international officials are abandoning the UN's stated commitment to create and protect a multiethnic society in Kosovo. Instead, they favor something closer to their French colleagues' view that mixing the two populations is impossible, and all that can be done is to keep the two from killing each other.

This passive style of peacekeeping has emboldened Milosevic to press his hand further in Mitrovica, by attempting to keep control of Trepca and by spurring the harassment and expulsions of Albanians from the Serb side of town. Albanians have responded aggressively with sniper attacks, marauding incursions into southern Serbia, where state-sponsored ethnic cleansing of majority-Albanian villages has been reported, and, allegedly, the fatal ambush of a KFOR-escorted UN bus carrying Serbs too afraid to travel on their own.

The following night in Mitrovica, a riot left seven Albanians dead and 34 wounded, among them, five KFOR peacekeepers. Ten days later, two more French peacekeepers were wounded, as Albanian gunmen reportedly fired on Serbs who had set houses on fire and hurled a grenade into a crowd of Albanians. The French fired back, killing an "Albanian sniper,'' whom the Albanian mayor, human-rights monitors and journalists insist was unarmed. The French wounded four other alleged snipers and arrested 46 people, 45 of them Albanians.

If the initial attack on the UN bus was, in fact, carried out by Albanian extremists, and triggered the most extreme and protracted violence since KFOR entered Kosovo eight months ago, that incident was not, in itself, unprovoked. The international community's continued willingness to turn a blind eye to the Serbs' oppression of Albanians simply trying to live or work in northern Mitrovica has made the Albanians impatient not only with their foreign protectors but also with their moderate leaders. They are left with no choice but to turn to Albanian extremists for help, thereby narrowing the space for moderation and dialogue.

Former Kosovo Liberation Army officers recently began informal recruiting in Pristina. On Wednesday, Kosovar political leader and former KLA commander Hashim Thaci warned the international community that Mitrovica's violence "could spread to other parts of Kosovo.'' Cross-border incursions into southern Serbia by former KLA units have become so common that local Serbs in Merdare and villages nearby have organized their own vigilante protection force. Meanwhile, the UN high commissioner for refugees and NATO are quietly preparing for possible refugee flows from southern Serbia and Montenegro, the democratic Yugoslav republic to which many Mitrovica residents fled during allied bombing and where Belgrade has made threatening noises of late.

The standoff in Mitrovica must be brought to an end, with the help of a resolute and robust KFOR presence, international mediation and perhaps, as is being contemplated at UN headquarters, a carefully chosen international administration for the city. All Serb police and paramilitary units should be arrested and tried or thrown out of Kosovo, all gun-wielding Albanians and Kosovar Serbs disarmed and detained. The Trepca mines and smelter should be shuttered immediately by NATO and renovated under UN auspices by contractors meticulously vetted by international experts, with competing claims of ownership left to the courtroom.

Without such an immediate display of backbone on the part of international officials posted in Mitrovica and those leading the Kosovo mission, the international community will have failed Milosevic's latest test of its resolve and will bear at least partial responsibility for his next Balkan war.

Susan Blaustein, a journalist and senior consultant with the International Crisis Group, recently visited Mitrovica. She submitted this comment to the Los Angeles Times.