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Monday, 14 August, 2000, 13:33 GMT 14:33 UK
Analysis: Battle for Kosovo's mines
K-For APC outside Trepca mining complex
Serbs control some areas of Kosovo that Unmik is supposed to
BBC south-east Europe analyst Gabriel Partos

The lead smelter in Zvecan, near the Serb-controlled part of the northern town of Mitrovica, is part of Kosovo's biggest mining and ore processing complex.

It, and other Kosovan mines, have taken an political and economic significance.

The ownership of the Zvecan plant has been in dispute for over a decade - first between Kosovo's Albanians and the Serbian authorities and then, since last year's conflict, between the UN administration in Kosovo and Belgrade.

But beyond dealing with the pollution issue, the UN is also eager to weaken the Serbs' stranglehold over the economic resources of Kosovo

The Zvecan smelter is part of the Trepca complex of 40 mines and plants producing a range of metals, including zinc, lead, cadmium and silver.

Now largely run down, it is traditionally been the mainstay of Kosovo's economy, accounting in the late 1980s for about a quarter of Kosovo's gross domestic product.

Because of its substantial exports earnings in the past, it has also been an important economic resource for the whole of Serbia.

Zvecan's history

Before Serbia revoked Kosovo's autonomy in all but name in 1989, the Zvecan complex was in the hands of Kosovo's predominantly ethnic Albanian provincial authorities.

Thereafter, Belgrade put the mines and processing plants under its direct control. And much of the mainly ethnic Albanian labour force was dismissed when miners went on strike to protest against the abolition of Kosovo's autonomy.

Under Serbian control in the 1990s the complex was neglected, and pollution levels increased.

The little investment that was acquired during the period came from a Greek company, Mytilineos Holdings, which has been claiming compensation for lack of payment for its involvement.

Environmental hazard

The multi-national peacekeeping force, K-For has now taken over the lead smelter in Zvecan following reports that the pollution spewed out by this communist-era plant was 200 times the accepted level set by the World Health Organisation.

Trepca plant in Mitrovica
The UN says the smeliting plant is causing massive pollution
The head of the UN Mission in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner - himself a physician by profession - ordered the take over of the smelter after the commander of the French K-For contingent based in the area had complained that the factory represented a health threat to his soldiers.

Controlling the mines

But the environmental damage is just one problem.

Although the UN Mission in Kosovo, Unmik, is supposed to be running the province, effective control over sections of the Trepca complex has remained in Serbian hands.

This is because the Zvecan smelter and other units are located in the area that now has the only remaining substantial concentration of Serbs in Kosovo, the northern part of the divided town of Mitrovica.

By contrast, other parts of the complex, including the largest mine at Stari Trg, are now in Albanian hands because the local population is predominantly ethnic Albanian.

Dividing Kosovo

While the Kosovar Albanians are prepared, for the time being, to accept Unmik's ultimate control - and its help in allocating the huge foreign aid needed to make the mines and plants efficient and environmentally sound. The Serbs have been much more reluctant to co-operate with UNMIK.

K-For arrest Kosovo Albanina protester
K-For has struggled to control ehtnic violence in Mitrovica
Now the UN has decided to assert its control in order to allow a consortium of US, French and Swedish companies to modernise the Zvecan plant.

But beyond dealing with the pollution issue, the UN is also eager to weaken the Serbs' stranglehold over the economic resources of Kosovo.

It is part of an effort to reduce the risk that Kosovo might one day be divided with the resource-rich northern region going to Serbia while the rest of Kosovo becomes independent under ethnic Albanian control.

This goes against the UN's wishes for restoring a multi-ethnic Kosovo that would remain part of a newly-democratic Yugoslavia.

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