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CNN Today

Ethnic Albanians March for Reunification of Mitrovica

Aired February 21, 2000 - 1:01 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: The always-explosive ethnic tensions in Kosovo hit a new flash point today. Thousands of ethnic Albanians were on a march to a divided city when they got into a fight with NATO-led peacekeepers.

CNN's Chris Burns is there. He joins us on the phone from Mitrovica, Kosovo.

Chris, what's going on there?

CHRIS BURNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, night has fallen just a while ago and a curfew is in effect. So the streets have pretty much cleared up at this point.

But it really was pretty tense there for the few hours of this afternoon and evening -- early evening where thousands of ethnic Albanians faced off with the KFOR troops, including British-Canadian, French and Danish who were at this very strategic bridge that divides north of Mitrovica, which is heavily Serb, and south Mitrovica heavily, which is heavily ethnic Albanian.

At this bridge, the most of the day, the British riot police were able to hold back this group of several thousand local ethnic Albanians waving their big, bright, red flags. But they did manage to -- the protesters broke through that cordon toward the mid after -- late afternoon. And they moved up toward the bridge, facing off and actually climbing on to a number of armored personnel carriers, French riot police firing tear gas, tear gas volleys repeatedly, and these demonstrators dispersing and then simply coming back and chanting even louder. So it seemed very, very tense at that time. And also on the other side of the bridge was more than 100 Serb demonstrators waving their Serb and Yugoslav flags. So, that was very tense at that point.

But, at this point, it seems to have calmed, probably -- well it was very strategic there was that the heads of KFOR, the U.N. administrative administration, and the Kosovo protection force, which is the former Kosovo ethnic Albanian force, they urged the demonstrators to disperse. This comes toward the end of a day of a major protest by some 20,000 ethnic Albanians who marched from the capital of Pristina up toward Mitrovica. A very impressive sight to see 20,000 of these people marching across the snowy countryside very peacefully.

And, by late afternoon, officials say, the protesters were persuaded to turn back, assured that the officials will be hearing and considering their demand to reunify Mitrovica.

At the same time, the police patrols and KFOR patrols in Mitrovica itself continued today, at least early today, searching for weapons, trying to diffuse the situation on both sides of the Ibar River.

And, of course, this comes a day after American troops were attacked with rocks and other projectiles by Serb pro -- demonstrators on the north side. The Americans were trying to seize a number of weapon and they managed to, but they had to pull back after this clash with the Serbs -- Lou.

WATERS: Chris, what's at the root of it for the Albanians? Was it not the fact that, before the war, the Albanians were in the dominant political factor in both northern and southern Mitrovica?

BURNS: Well, Mitrovica is -- it's been a very heavily, very bitterly disputed region. And it is -- of course, there is economic interest in there too; it is a mineral rich region, mining region. The Serbs have made this sort of a last stand for themselves because, after the Kosovo War ended and Yugoslav forces pulled out last June and the KFOR forces moved in, there had been a number of reprisals across Kosovo against Serbs, and many of them, most of them, have pulled back. And this sort of region in the north that borders Serbia is kind of considered a last stand by the Serbs, and they don't want to pull back. The Albanians, of course, are angry by that; they see what seems to be a de facto partition.

The KFOR and other authorities insist they want to solve the situation, but it is extremely delicate, especially in the last couple of weeks where there were a number of attacks by either side. And a number of -- hundreds of Albanians who are still up in northern Mitrovica, they fled to the south. So this, obviously, inflamed tensions and caused the situation we have right now -- Lou.

WATERS: All right, Chris Burns, keeping watch in Mitrovica in the province of Kosovo.

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