French peace-keepers are stoned by Serb crowds in new clashes at Mitrovica bridge

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The Independent Online

Nato Peace-keepers came under a hail of stones, rocks and bricks from hardline Serbs yesterday as they mounted an operation to break the deadlock in the racially divided city of Mitrovica.

French soldiers and policemen fired dozens of rounds of tear-gas as well as stun-grenades at an estimated 500 Serbs who had gathered to protest against French moves to block Serb access to an ethnically mixed area of Mitrovica known as Little Bosnia. At least six Serbs were injured, two seriously, as well as one French soldier and two journalists, one British and one German.

The operation began at 6am, when 250 French troops, accompanied by Italian and French police, stormed over the main eastern bridge in Mitrovica in armoured vehicles. Four "bridgekeepers" - as the unofficial Serbian security network in northern Mitrovica is known - were removed peaceably from their positions by the French, who then erected barbed-wire barricades outside Little Bosnia.

The Serbian response was not slow in coming. Led by a wave of women hurling stones and bricks, some carrying iron bars, a mob stormed the French troops, who responded by firing tear-gas and stun-grenades into the crowd.

"I will not let my children be used as targets," screamed one Serbian woman, while another claimed Nato peacekeepers had been deployed "to drive us from our homes". Oliver Ivanovic, the self-styled Serbian mayor of northern Mitrovica, shouted that Nato's K-For troops were intent on allowing "Albanian terrorists" into northern Mitrovica.

Two Serbs hit by French stun-grenades were taken to a Serbian hospital for "major surgery", according to hospital sources. The injured British journalist was named as Andrew Gray, from Lanark, Strathclyde, a correspondent for the Reuters news agency. He was taken to hospital with a broken nose and bruising.

Yesterday's operation followed assurances from senior Nato officials that they would not allow Serb-dominated northern Mitrovica to become a enclave where Albanians could not venture without risk of major injury or death.

Twelve Serbs and Albanians have been killed, and nearly 110 people injured, including Nato peace-keepers, in clashes in Mitrovica since the beginning of February.