Britain sends reinforcements to Kosovo

Extra troops go in after outbreaks of ethnic fighting leave 22 dead
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Britain will send an extra 750 troops to Kosovo within days to reinforce the Nato peacekeeping force, the Ministry of Defence said this afternoon.

Britain will send an extra 750 troops to Kosovo within days to reinforce the Nato peacekeeping force, the Ministry of Defence said this afternoon.

A spokeswoman for the MoD said a spearhead battalion from the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment would leave within four days.

Nato called for reinforcements after 22 people were killed and hundreds injured in fighting between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in the worst violence since the 1998-99 war.

The alliance sent about 350 extra troops to couyntry today, mostly from Bosnia and Italy, to beef up the 18,500 Nato-led peacekeepers now in Kosovo.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon told the Cabinet this morning that Nato had asked for an extra 500 British troops.

The UK is currently the Nato reserve force for Kosovo and already has about 1,000 troops there.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said Mr Hoon's announcement to the Cabinet was met with "an acknowledgement that we take our responsibilities to Kosovo seriously".

Braced for more trouble, Nato mobilized extra units today, sending about 350 troops to the province, mostly from Bosnia and Italy, to beef up the 18,500 Nato-led peacekeepers now in Kosovo.

Arsonists set fire to several Serb houses in Obilic, an ethnically mixed town west of the provincial capital of Pristina, forcing UN police and Nato troops to evacuate dozens of Serbs.

"Serbs here are being killed in their houses," Father Sava, a Serbian Orthodox priest in Kosovo, said by telephone from Obilic. He said at least 15 Serb homes had been torched and that the town's church was on fire. The claims could not immediately be confirmed.

Nato played down the prospects of renewed conflict, saying the alliance and the United Nations were committed to keeping the peace and quelling tensions.

"I don't believe there is a possibility of a war. We will do what is necessary to restore and uphold law and order," Nato spokesman Jamie Shea said today.

All the deaths came in gunbattles, riots and street fighting yesterday. Evidence of the violence was still visible: Smoke billowed from Serb houses set ablaze in the ethnically mixed town of Kosovo Polje, and burned out cars littered the streets of Pristina.

The clashes started in the ethnically divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica after ethnic Albanians blamed Serbs for the drowning of two of their children and began rampaging in revenge.

Violence broke out elsewhere in the UN-run province, including several enclaves where Serbs have eked out a sheltered existence since the end of the war.

Nato-led peacekeepers and Romanian police units moved in, firing tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades to stop ethnic Albanians from surging across a key bridge toward the Serb side of the city, where another crowd had gathered.

The breakdown in order illustrated the failure of UN and Nato efforts to snuff out ethnic hatreds and set the province on the path of reconciliation.

The new tally of casualties was given by Angela Joseph, a spokeswoman for the UN police. Sixty-one police officers, including 40 members of the UN special police unit, were injured during the clashes, she said.

Separately, Lt. Col. Jim Moran, spokesman for the Nato-led peacekeepers, said that 17 peacekeepers were injured.

About 100 Serbs were evacuated from their buildings in the centre of Pristina and other communities by police and Nato-led peacekeepers, officials said. Some of the apartments evacuated by the Serbs and the cars they left behind were torched by arsonists.

Nato-led peacekeepers were blocking a key road with Macedonia leading through a Serb enclave of Caglavica, which had been the scene of street fighting.

Commercial flights to Kosovo's only civilian airport were suspended on Nato orders.

Senior international officials appealed for calm.

"I urge all ethnic communities in Kosovska Mitrovica and in the rest of Kosovo to avoid further escalation, to act with calm and to refrain from demonstrations and roadblocks," Nato Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said.

"The escalating violence must end. It threatens the process of democratization and reconciliation in Kosovo," said US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli.

The unrest spilled beyond Kosovo's borders.

In Belgrade, the capital of Serbia-Montenegro, demonstrators set the city's 17th century mosque on fire after clashing with police trying to guard the building. The protesters demanded that the government act to protect their Orthodox Christian kin in Kosovo from attacks by the province's predominantly Muslim ethnic Albanians.

Serbia's senior official for Kosovo, Nebojsa Covic, accused Nato of a "dramatic inability" to protect Serbs. "The entire concept of multiethnic life in Kosovo has now collapsed," he said.

Trouble began amid reports that Serbs in a village near Kosovska Mitrovica set a dog on a group of ethnic Albanian boys, sending three - the oldest 12 - fleeing into an icy river.

After authorities recovered two bodies - and searched for a third - ethnic Albanians and Serbs gathered near the bridge over the Ibar River that divides Kosovska Mitrovica, long the flashpoint of tensions in the UN-run province. The two sides traded insults, threw rocks and charged at each other before gunfire rang out.

The province itself is UN-administered but remains part of Serbia-Montenegro, the successor state to Yugoslavia, with its final status to be decided by the United Nations. But the lack of movement on the status question has left postwar tensions boiling.

The Kosovo war ended in mid-1999 after a Nato air campaign drove Serb-dominated troops loyal to former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic out of the province and stopped a crackdown on the independence-minded Kosovo Albanian majority.