Sat, Mar 20, 2004 - Page 7 News List

NATO bolsters its peacekeeping forces in Kosovo

REUTERS , PRISTINA, SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO

NATO beefed up its peacekeeping force in Kosovo yesterday after two days of ethnic clashes killed 31 Albanians and Serbs in a major blow to Western efforts to bring stability to the Balkans.

Flying in reserves to bolster its 18,500-strong force, NATO vowed to stamp out the worst violence Kosovo has seen since the military alliance and the UN took control of the province from Serbia in 1999, using "robust" action if necessary.

About 150 US troops and 80 Italian Carabinieri arrived in Kosovo on Thursday while the first of some 750 British soldiers were due to arrive yesterday.

UN police spokesman Derek Chappell voiced cautious optimism that the worst might be over, saying he had no reports of major incidents overnight after clashes between Albanians and peacekeepers near the capital Pristina late on Thursday.

"I get the sense things are calming down," he told Reuters.

The blackened ruins of the Orthodox church in Pristina were still smouldering hours after it was set on fire, one of several Serbian religious buildings torched by majority Albanians, most of whom are Muslims, in Kosovo on Thursday.

This week's riots, attacks and killings have set back the province's quest for independence from Serbia, UN Security Council members said during an emergency session of the 15-nation body at UN headquarters in New York.

A decision on Kosovo's future "cannot be accomplished through violence," US Deputy Ambassador James Cunningham told the council.

In Kosovo, UN personnel in the ethnically-divided town of Mitrovica had been evacuated to a nearby NATO base, a spokesman said.

At least six people were shot dead or blown up in Mitrovica on Wednesday.

The next day, a crowd of Albanians set on fire a church there, despite French soldiers firing teargas and rubber bullets to disperse them.

The flare-up began on Monday when a Serb teenager was wounded in a drive-by shooting. The following day three Albanian boys drowned in a river, reportedly after being chased by Serbs. On Wednesday, Kosovo exploded.

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