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Mitrovica Serbs Maintain Standoff

February 26, 2000

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ For the Serbs of this city, the 100-foot bridge across the Ibar River has become the focus of their lives, the symbol of Serb defiance against what they consider an ethnic Albanian campaign to drive them from Kosovo.

An estimated 17,000 Serbs, including about 6,000 who fled here from other parts of Kosovo, live on the north bank of the Ibar and in the hinterlands to the north and west of the industrial and mining city.

Every day, many of them wait at the northern edge of the bridge, waiting to do battle with the ethnic Albanians if they try to cross into the Serb part of the city. For many Serbs, defense of the bridge means the difference between remaining in their homeland or being forced into an uncertain life in the rest of Serbia.

``I have no other option but to die here,″ said Rade Spasojevic, 60, as he watched NATO troops building a footbridge 900 feet south of the main crossing. The bridge is being built to allow up to 120 ethnic Albanian families to return next week to three riverside apartment houses from which they fled because of ethnic violence.

The chief U.N. administrator for Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, says the move is the first step in allowing ethnic Albanians, Serbs and other minorities to return to their homes and begin rebuilding a multiethnic society.

NATO is considering a recommendation by its supreme commander for Europe, Gen. Wesley Clark, for three additional battalions to provide security during the resettlement.

Serbs see it differently.

``They will not build anything,″ Spasojevic said of the planned bridge. ``We will do everything to stop it. If the Albanians move in, then it is the end for all of us.″

The Serbs have opposed free movement between the Serb and ethnic Albanian parts of the city, citing the hundreds of reprisal attacks by ethnic Albanians against Serbs and Gypsies which have occurred since NATO-led peacekeepers replaced Yugoslav forces under a peace deal which ended the 78-day NATO bombing campaign.

NATO launched the bombing campaign March 24 to stop Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s 18-month crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists, which left an estimated 10,000 civilians dead and drove about 900,000 Albanians from their homes.

With ethnic bitterness intense on both sides, French troops have enforced the effective division of Kosovska Mitrovica since they arrived in June. Peacekeepers have clashed frequently with ethnic Albanians trying to cross the bridge, most recently last weekend.

Providing their own security, about 100 Serbs, dressed in bright blue or red overalls and equipped with walkie-talkies, patrol around the north side of the bridge just in case the ethnic Albanians ever make it across.

The ``Bridge Guardians″ were organized by the local Serbian National Council. At the first sign of trouble on the Albanian side, the Guardians use the walkie-talkies to alert the National Council, which in turn musters hundreds, sometimes thousands, of reinforcements.

U.S. and NATO officials accused Milosevic of stirring up trouble in Kosovska Mitrovica, a charge the Guardians and other Serbs vehemently deny.

``They are accusing us of being paramilitaries organized by Belgrade,″ Spasojevic said. ``Look at us. We are just a bunch of desperate people. We can hurl rocks and empty bottles but we are not paramilitaries. We simply have no other way.″

Guardians say they have generally good relations with the French peacekeepers.

``We have no problems with them,″ said one Guardian, who gave his name only as Zoran. ``They are professionals. They respect us.″

But the focus, he said, is on the bridge.

``This is the most important thing in the life of every single man, woman and child in this city,″ he said. ``This is a matter of life and death.″

Virtually every Serb and Gypsy who wanders near the bridge takes at least one pensive look across to the ethnic Albanian side.

``If they cross, I will lie down along with my eight children and let them kill me,″ said Hira Bisljini, 54, a Gypsy who fled the Albanian side of the city. ``It’s difficult to look at your own house across the river every morning, knowing that someone else lives there. My house was so beautiful. It was all white.″

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