LIBERATION OF KOSOVO: Fears of chaos as Albanian gangs move in

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TO CHANTS of "KLA, KLA" and "Nato, Nato", a thin line of French gendarmes, reinforced by soldiers, held back a crowd of perhaps 200 Albanians in Mitrovica yesterday. The protesters wanted to storm the bridge in the northern Kosovo town and confront Serb demonstrators on the other side who have for weeks blocked free movement. The town has for three weeks been a flashpoint and a potent illustration of one of the dangers facing post-war Kosovo.

But to many Kosovars, the most serious threat to peace is no longer the Serbs but a general lack of security, resulting in a massive upsurge in theft, arson and murder. Post-war crime in Kosovo falls into two basic categories: war-related looting and murder, and common crime by opportunists exploiting the near anarchy in the province. Looting is widespread, as is the torching of "enemy" [Serbian] houses and revenge killings. Last week, 14 murders were reported in one day.

While the scale of revenge looting and killing has actually been fairly modest, the danger is that chaos will take over long before the United Nations can train a new civilian police force.

Yesterday, Sergio Vieira de Mello, Kosovo's temporary UN administrator, convened an "emergency" meeting of Albanian and Serbian leaders, after which he hoped for a joint statement "condemning all forms of violence, appealing to both communities for restraint, and for respect of fundamental human rights". He hopes to persuade the local population to trust the new judiciary system "rather than going for summary revenge and retribution".

The meeting was the first time substantive talks have been held between Albanian leaders, including Hashim Thaci, head of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and local Serb leaders.

In Pristina, Mitrovica and countless villages, fires continue to be set in the homes of Serbs and gypsies accused of assisting the Serbian regime. For now, policing is in the hands of Nato troops unaccustomed to such a role. Yesterday, French gendarmes arrested Dragan Marjanovic, a paramilitary accused by local Albanians of raping four women and burning two alive.

The British forces fear that the Albanian Mafia will import the prostitution, drug-running and money-laundering rings for which they are famous in southern and eastern Europe. At Morini, the main road crossing between Kosovo and Albania, a Western military policeman said that "hundreds" of Albanian bandits were on the move in Kosovo, "because the KLA have pulled out and the gangs have started to move in".

On Thursday, the Nato Supreme Commander, General Wesley Clark, said there was evidence that Slobodan Milosevic was reinforcing his troops in Montenegro and yesterday Javier Solana, Nato's secretary-general, said the alliance would take action if the Yugoslav President tried to provoke conflict there. "We will act if necessary," Mr Solana told reporters in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.