The Associated Press, Reuters
MONDAY, JUNE 20, 2005
MITROVICA, Kosovo United Nations police officers intervened to separate groups of Serbs and ethnic Albanians hurling stones at one another Sunday in this divided town in northern Kosovo.
The incident occurred after police officers stopped a car carrying four ethnic Albanians from crossing a bridge over a river that divides the town's northern, Serb-dominated area from the southern ethnic Albanian-majority area.
The ethnic Albanians were reversing their car when they crashed into a van driven by a Serb, prompting groups of nearby Serbs and ethnic Albanians to hurl stones at one another, said Rade Negojevic, from the local press center. Serbian buses and cars were damaged, he said. UN police officers separated the two groups, and detained two of the ethnic Albanians.
Tensions have increased in Mitrovica after the UN authorities this week reopened the bridge - a symbol of Kosovo's ethnic divide and the scene of violent clashes in the past - for traffic for two hours on workdays.
Local Serbs have staged daily protests against the reopening of the bridge, which had been closed to traffic since March 2004, when mobs of ethnic Albanians attacked Serbs and their property in violence that left 19 people dead and about 900 injured.
Serbs are reluctant to see ethnic Albanians return in large numbers to north Mitrovica, which they see as their last urban stronghold in a province where 90 percent of the 2 million people are ethnic Albanians.
The reopening was an attempt to gradually ease tensions ahead of talks expected later this year to determine the province's future status.
Kosovo officially remains part of Serbia-Montenegro, the union that replaced Yugoslavia. It has been administered by the United Nations and NATO since mid-1999, following the alliances' war against Serb forces to halt a crackdown against ethnic Albanian rebels fighting for independence. Negotiations are due later this year on whether it becomes independent or remains nominally part of Serbia.
Up to 180,000 Serbs fled Kosovo in 1999 after NATO carried out a 78-day bombing operation to drive out Serb forces accused of atrocities against Albanian civilians while fighting separatist rebels. Mitrovica has since seen some of the worst violence. Clashes there in March last year sparked Kosovo-wide Albanian riots in which 19 people were killed and 800 homes of Serbs and other minorities destroyed.