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Clashes across Kosovo leave 10 dead
Updated: 2004-03-18 09:03

Furious ethnic Albanians blaming Serbs for the drowning of two children clashed with Serbs in a gunfight Wednesday that left eight dead and more than 300 injured.

Riots broke out in at least five other towns, touching off one of the worst days of Serb-Albanian bloodshed since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the violence, saying it "jeopardizes the stability of Kosovo and the security of all its people."

The conflict ignited amid reports that Serbs in a nearby village set a dog on a group of ethnic Albanian boys, sending three fleeing into an icy river.

After authorities recovered two bodies -- and searched for a third -- ethnic Albanians and Serbs gathered near a key bridge over the Ibar River that divides Mitrovica, long the flashpoint of tensions in this southern province of Serbia-Montenegro.

The two sides traded insults, threw rocks and charged at each other several times before gunfire rang out.

A hand grenade exploded and a machine-gun burst rattled the crowd. Rioters set U.N. police cars on fire.

Even before police could move in to separate the sides, a riot swept the town, with protesters throwing rocks and other objects at peacekeepers.

NATO-led peacekeepers and Romanian riot police moved in firing tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades to stop ethnic Albanians from surging across the bridge toward the Serb side of the city, where another crowd had gathered.

Gunfire rocked the town sporadically throughout the afternoon.

"I heard several bursts of gunfire, and then just felt pain and went down on the ground," said Ridvan Lahu, 41, who suffered a gunshot wound.

The dead included six ethnic Albanians and two Serbs, said Derek Chappell, the chief U.N. police spokesman. A U.N. police officer shot and killed one of the ethnic Albanian victims, who was attempting to hit the officer with a brick in the western town of Pec, Chappell said.

Lt. Col. Jim Moran, a spokesman for the NATO-led peacekeepers, said 17 peacekeepers were injured -- 15 French, one Dane and one Polish soldier.

By evening, the immediate vicinity of the city was clear of crowds, and a tense calm had settled on both sides of the city. Peacekeepers in armored vehicles were positioned on the bridge, the focal point of past conflicts.

In the predominantly ethnic Albanian southern side of Kosovska Mitrovica, hospital floors were swamped with blood. Doctors urged bystanders -- including weeping relatives -- to give blood in the crowded corridors. Hospital workers counted 200 hurt, including several who were shot.

On the Serb side, Milan Ivanovic, a hospital physician, said 80 Serbs were wounded.

In a separate melee near the provincial capital, Pristina, hundreds of ethnic Albanians broke through barricades erected by U.N. police and NATO-led peacekeepers to march on the Serb village of Caglavica. Hand grenades were thrown and Serb houses were set on fire, Joseph said.

NATO troops and police used water cannons and tear gas to push the crowd back as authorities tried to regain control. Several U.N. cars were in flames.

Violence also occurred in Pristina, where U.N. cars were set on fire. In the nearby city of Kosovo Polje, dozens of Serb houses were also ablaze and ethnic Albanians appeared to be in control on the streets. A local hospital used by the Serb minority was also burning.

Riots also were reported in the western city of Pec, where crowds targeted international institutions. Crowds clashed with peacekeepers and police in the town of Gracanica and cars were destroyed in the city of Gnjilane.

With Orthodox Christian Serbs regarding Kosovo as their ancient homeland and mostly Muslim ethnic Albanians seeking independence, hatreds between the two sides continue to boil over into violence.

The province itself is U.N.-administered but remains part of Serbia and Montenegro, the successor state to Yugoslavia, with its final status to be decided by the United Nations. The lack of movement on the status question, however, has left postwar tensions simmering.

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