(c) 2005 Reuters Limited
MITROVICA, Serbia and Montenegro, April 4 (Reuters) - NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo's divided city of Mitrovica removed checkpoints and barricades on Monday from a notorious bridge that has been one of the most volatile flashpoints in the Balkans.
French soldiers drove away two armoured personnel carriers (APCs), dismantled 2-metre-high sandbag barricades and packed away makeshift huts erected across the bridge following ethnic Albanian riots last year.
A single French patrol of 20 soldiers and two APCs will remain to back up a small United Nations police contingent plus Serb and Albanian members of the local Kosovo Police Service.
The move comes despite potentially explosive negotiations expected later this year on whether Kosovo becomes independent, as the 90-percent Albanian majority demands, or remains nominally part of Serbia.
"The aim is to go back to a normal life," Col. Yves Kermorvant, a spokesman for the KFOR peace force, told Reuters. "But this must be done slowly because of the reaction of some people who are afraid they will not be secure."
The U.N. has recently expressed concern at the almost daily incidence of what police believe may be "warning" attacks on its facilities by Albanian extremists in other parts of Kosovo.
Monday's move reduced the security level in the northern Kosovo town to that in place before violent clashes at the bridge last March sparked Kosovo-wide riots by Albanian mobs.
STILL NO VEHICLES ALLOWED
Mitrovica has seen some of the worst violence since the 1998-99 war. In the March riots, which killed 19 people, Serbs and Albanians traded automatic gunfire and pelted rocks at each other from either side of the bridge.
Kermorvant said security had improved significantly since then but civilian vehicles are still prevented from crossing.
The main bridge with its two illuminated arches spans the River Ibar, which has divided Serbs to the north and Albanians to the south since the end of the guerrilla war and the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo.
Serbs see north Mitrovica as their last urban stronghold in the Albanian-dominated province, now governed by the U.N..
Running north to the "administrative border" with Serbia are swathes of Serb-populated land, home to 30,000 people - a third of Kosovo's remaining Serb population.
For Kosovo Albanians, who want full independence, hardline Serbs in north Mitrovica represent the frontline for a possible attempt by Serb leaders in Belgrade to partition the province.
The owner of a Serb cafe in the north said he was worried by KFOR's partial withdrawal from the bridge.
"All incidents up till now have begun with attacks across the bridge from the south to the north," said Sasa Radosavljevic.
NATO deployed in Kosovo in 1999 after bombing for 78 days to expel Serb forces accused of atrocities against Albanian civilians as they fought separatist rebels. (Additional reporting by Matthew Robinson).