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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 March, 2004, 22:10 GMT
UN Kosovo mission walks a tightrope

By Nick Thorpe
BBC correspondent in Kosovo

"THANK YOU NATO - We are with you!" proclaims the two page centre-spread advertisement, in the Kosovo daily Koha Ditore.

Serb women
The last week has seen peoples' lives disrupted again

24 March 2004 is the fifth anniversary of the start of Nato bombing in 1999.

The war ended 78 days later with a ceasefire agreement which allowed a UN administration to be set up, with the Nato-led K-For mission overseeing security.

But last week's ethnic violence, which saw Albanian crowds setting fire to Serb enclaves and driving out villagers, has generated a cloud of gloom over this year's ethnic Albanian celebrations.

"It is not a good thing when you're in a peacekeeping operation to shoot civilians," said Major Sergio Tomai, spokesman for K-For's Multinational Brigade South West.

"This was the worst kind of confrontation. We decided to leave the place rather than shoot civilians," he told the BBC in an interview in his base in Prizren, close to the mountainous border between Kosovo and Macedonia.

When angry Albanian crowds marched on Serb homes and churches in Prizren and the surrounding villages on 17 and 18 March, K-For received the order to evacuate the Serbs.

What that meant in practice was abandoning the buildings to the mercy of the mob.


Five Serbian churches were burnt down in Prizren alone. On the hillside above this ancient Ottoman town, the burnt and charred ruins of homes and churches stand in sad contrast to the beauty of the remaining Muslim quarters.

Old stone minarets, and houses with wooden-framed balconies overlook the narrow streets.

The plum trees are just coming into blossom. The mountain peaks above are still crowned with snow.

Five years after its establishment here, the United Nations mission in Kosovo is wavering - between trying to resolve the question of the province's status once and for all, or postponing it indefinitely.

Both courses are dangerous.

An American police officer receiving flowers from a Kosovo Albanian girl
A rally was held to mark the 5th anniversary of the Nato bombing

Richard Holbrooke, veteran US diplomat for the Balkans, has called openly in recent interviews for the West to bite the bullet of Kosovan independence.

His comments have infuriated Harri Holkeri, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General and de facto governor of the province.

Mr Holbrooke shares the majority Albanian view that last week's violence, however reprehensible, was provoked by UN foot-dragging over the future status of the province.

On Monday, Nato Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, on a lightning visit to Pristina, took Mr Holkeri's side.

"This has nothing to do with status," he said of the violence, which he described as "criminal acts of ethnic hatred" which would "do nothing to bring the political ambitions of the perpetrators any closer".

Ethnic engineering

Nearly 200 people have been arrested on suspicion of taking part in the violence so far - 40 in Prizren alone.

In the corridors of the highly fortified Unmik building in Pristina, the word partition can be heard with increasing frequency, amid the murmur of voices discussing the way forward for Kosovo.

That is Belgrade's preferred solution - a Bosnian-style division into two entities, one largely Albanian, another, in the north around the town of Mitrovica, largely Serbian.

But critics say that the current division of Bosnia is no solution. And that previous experiments with ethnic engineering in the Balkans caused, rather than prevented bloodshed.

Elderly Serbs leaving a Nato base
Some Serbs had taken shelter in Nato bases to escape the violence

"Remember the Vance-Owen Plan," said Blerim Shala, editor of the Albanian language daily Zeri, referring to the plan proposed for the division of Bosnia by western mediators Cyrus Vance and David Owen in 1993.

Encouraged by the new maps, Bosnian Croat forces turned on their Bosnian Muslim allies, to seize territory in Herzegovina and central Bosnia.

Back in Prizren, Major Tomai escorts me to the main gate of his base.

"What happened last week will not be repeated," he said, hinting that his men would stand firm against the mob next time.

And in Pristina, British K-For re-enforcements patrol mysteriously, with great bunches of plastic flowers beside their guns.

The BBC's Jim Fish
"The Albanians know they have to work fast if they're to reasssure the Serbs"

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