US and German troops come under attack in Kosovo town

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The Independent Online

Serbs in Kosovo's divided town of Mitrovica claimed a victory yesterday when more than 300 American peacekeepers taking part in a multinational search operation for weapons and "extremists" withdrew under a hail of stones, bottles, ice and snowballs. German troops were also attacked.

Serbs in Kosovo's divided town of Mitrovica claimed a victory yesterday when more than 300 American peacekeepers taking part in a multinational search operation for weapons and "extremists" withdrew under a hail of stones, bottles, ice and snowballs. German troops were also attacked.

It was the first time US soldiers had been deployed in the northern, Serbian half of Mitrovica, where hostility to the American and British elements in the K-For peacekeeping force is intense. When the Americans arrived early in the morning to begin the searches there were clashes with local Serbs, beginning when they discovered the troops had an Albanian interpreter with them. She was removed for her own safety.

As news spread of the Americans' arrival, an angry crowd of several hundred people gathered. They broke through a protective cordon of French soldiers and gendarmes and rained blows on the US troops, who shoved them back with shields and rifles. One soldier pointed his weapon at a Serb and threatened to shoot him. The man shouted back: "Go on, shoot!" When the American commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Ellerby, went into the crowd in an attempt to negotiate with the self-styled leader of Mitrovica's Serbs, Oliver Ivanovic, he had to be plucked out by the gendarmes.

Mr Ivanovic later claimed that four Serbs had been injured, two when they had been sprayed with a riot-control substance by an American soldier. K-For said it knew nothing of the alleged incident.

The violent scenes persuaded the French commander of the Mitrovica sector, General de Saqui de Sannes, to redeploy the Americans, who were pelted with missiles as they left. One soldier had his nose broken and several vehicles were damaged. An American spokesman, Captain Russell Berg, said: "We left as scheduled after our mission was completed," but Lt-Col Patrick Chanliau, the chief French military spokesman in the town, later admitted that a decision had been taken to withdraw the Americans to avoid confrontation.

Some 2,300 troops from 12 nations took part in the weapons dragnet operation on both sides of Mitrovica. The main aim was to defuse tension after clashes earlier this month that left nine Albanians and two Serbs dead in the worst violence since K-For arrived last June. The use of American troops was apparently intended to send the Serbs a message that they could not choose which peacekeepers to accept. The crowds stoned American and German vehicles, but the French were cheered, an embarrassing accolade for a force accused by the Albanians of appeasing Serbs.

Lt-Col Chanliau insisted that the American withdrawal was not a defeat, and that it did not mean US soldiers would not be sent to northern Mitrovica again. But he added: "The purpose of the operation was not to fight people, but to recover weapons and explosives. If they wanted to stop that, they did not succeed. The search is continuing. Perhaps it is a tactic to divide us, but it won't work. An attack on any part of K-For is an attack on all of us."

The arms haul was small: 10 automatic weapons, a machine gun, a pistol, a few other rifles, and seven blocks of plastic explosive. Ten hours after the start of the operation, only one arrest had been made; but K-For emphasised that it was not complete.

The differing goals of various nations in K-For was summed up by a French gendarme captain outside the apartment building, close by a police headquarters destroyed by Nato bombs, where most of the arms were found. "The Americans believe in being aggressive," he said. "We think the main thing is to maintain calm."

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