Nato mission to Kosovo's divided city of bitterness

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The Independent Online

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, Nato's secretary general, and General Wesley Clark, the supreme commander of last year's bombing campaign against Serbia, will tour the divided city of Mitrovica today in a visit that underlines the West's failings in Kosovo.

On the first anniversary of the start of Nato's 78-day bombardment, the two men are due to visit the divided northern city during a three-stop tour of the province. K-For officials said one option being considered was to visit the northern half of Mitrovica, home of the city's Serb population.

Mitrovica remains Kosovo's flashpoint. Always a city of two halves, it is now split in the most abrupt terms with the river dividing the Serb and Kosovo Albanian communities. Bridges across the river, guarded by troops, have been the site of regular confrontations between the two groups such as the clash last month when British troops had to force back Albanian protesters.

Last night a K-For spokesman insisted it was not an issue if the Nato party did not visit the north of the city. "I do not think it is a big deal to them," he said. "They are not trying to make an issue of it. Their visit is more a statement that Kosovo remains very important to the West. Whether they pay a visit to the northern half will depend on the security assessment that is made tomorrow morning."

But whatever K-For may insist, many observers feel that if Lord Robertson and General Clark did not complete their visit it would represent the damning admission that nine months after Nato entered Kosovo there remain no-go areas in the province.

It would also underline what is widely regarded as the West's biggest failing in Kosovo since the "liberation" last summer - providing security for the province's Serb minority. Official figures suggest two-thirds of the estimated 300,000 Serbs who were living in Kosovo this time last year have now left because of fears for their safety, but the real scale of the exodus may be even greater.

"Absolutely one of the biggest failings of the West has been not to allow minority groups to continue to stay in their homes," said Paula Ghedini, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The most recent UNHCR report on minorities in Kosovo concluded that the situation for such groups "remains precarious". Ethnic violence, it added, "represents a serious setback to the UN's efforts to promote freedom of movement and to protect minorities".

The divided city of Mitrovica has also divided Nato on how best it should be managed. While some senior K-For figures, including General Klaus Reinhardt, the commander of the international peace-keeping force, might like to see a move to reuniting the communities, others, including the French troops who control the city, appear to keep them apart.

No one doubts Mitrovica's ability to erupt into violence and there is a growing belief that the Serb gangs on the far side of the bridge are sponsored by Belgrade. The border with Serbia proper is just 30 miles away.

The UN is also aware of the particular potential for violence on today's anniversary. An internal memo given out to its staff yesterday and marked "For the widest possible dissemination" said they should be especially security conscious.

Yesterday, in what was interpreted as timely sabre-rattling by Nato, up to 2,000 troops streamed into the province as part of Operation Dynamic Response. K-For said the training exercise involving reserve forces was designed to "demonstrate Nato's resolve to maintaining a secure environment and deter external aggression". It denied any suggestions that it was being held in response to a particular threat.

* The Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, said in an article in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta yesterday that Nato's air war had only aggravated the situation in Kosovo. He wrote: "The Nato operation, launched under the invented pretext of protecting Albanians, only aggravated inter-ethnic tensions and most non-Albanians have [now] been purged from there."

Moscow also refused to send police officers to a UN force in Kosovo but said Serb security forces should be allowed back into the province.