By Branislav Krstic
MITROVICA, Serbia and Montenegro (Reuters) - The United Nations moved quickly to calm Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority on Friday after three children drowned in a village where a similar incident last March sparked deadly riots.
"This was an accidental drowning. There was no foul play," U.N. police spokesman Larry Miller said just an hour after the deaths of the Albanian children were reported.
He spoke to Kosovo's public radio and television, which also reported Monday's deaths as an accident. The U.N. mission later issued a statement stressing no foul play was suspected.
All three children were under the age of five. They were playing unattended in a water-filled pit behind their home in the northern village of Cabra, near Mitrovica, Miller said.
In March 2004, the drowning of three children from the same village in the nearby Ibar River lit the fuse for two days of devastating riots triggered by reports that Serbs with a dog had chased the children into the river.
U.N. police said there was no evidence to substantiate the charge, but their assurances came too late and 19 people died as Albanian mobs overran Serb enclaves in an orgy of looting and arson -- the worst violence since the 1998-99 war.
A report later strongly criticized the U.N. and NATO peacekeepers for failing to realize how explosive the incident was and take action to head off rumors that triggered the wave of anger.
The United Nations is on the alert for any unrest in Kosovo as it reviews whether enough progress has been made on security and minority rights for negotiations to begin on its "final status" -- independence, as Albanians want, or some high degree of autonomy acceptable to Serbia.
The province of two million people became a de facto U.N. protectorate in 1999 after 11 weeks of NATO bombing drove out Serb forces accused of atrocities against ethnic Albanian civilians as they battled to crush a separatist insurgency. (Additional reporting by Matthew Robinson)