Troops from the K-FOR peacekeeping force in Kosovo engaged with hidden attackers on Friday as a series of attacks prompted NATO soldiers to use deadly force.
Troops secured the town of Mitrovica.
As the first troops from the United States and Britain landed in Kosovo to boost peacekeeping forces on the ground on Friday, the NATO K-FOR soldiers raided apartment blocks in flashpoint Kosovo towns after another night of violence.
Describing the continued fighting between Serbs and Albanians as the closest thing to ethnic cleansing since the end of the 1999 war, NATO commanders ordered troops to swoop on areas where gunfire, rioting and arson attacks had forced 1000 Serbs to flee their homes.
"This kind of activity actually almost amounts to ethnic cleansing and it cannot go on," U.S. commander of NATO forces for Southern Europe, Admiral Gregory Johnson, told reporters in Kosovo's capital Pristina. "That's why we came here in the first place."
K-FOR troops, originally sent into Kosovo as peacekeepers, soon found their mission compromised in the early hours of Friday morning when a huge blast rocked the small town of Mitrovica, shaking a high-rise apartment block and sending terrified residents screaming out into the streets. NATO soldiers moved in quickly to evacuate the building but came under sniper fire. After exchanges, the sniper was shot dead.
As an uneasy calm settled on the Serb-dominated northern part of the ethnically divided town, NATO troops fell back to the bridge which cuts through Mitrovica, and blocked the crossing with several Armored Personnel Carriers. There were no reports of further exchanges or violent incidents during the afternoon but hundreds of KFOR soldiers remained in the town on alert. The fragile peace of the day remained in place across the country as more NATO troops arrived.
"It is tense but I am not aware of new incidents or explosions," said a U.N. police spokesman in Pristina. "It is generally quieter."
Almost 1,000 Serbs have fled their homes and sought the protection of NATO-led peacekeepers stationed in the province after violence flared up this week. So far 31 people, both Serbs and Albanians, have been killed in Kosovo's worst outbreak of violence since the war ended five years ago.
Seven NATO member states have rushed a total of 2000 reinforcement troops into Kosovo to beef up the 18,000-strong force over the last two days. Germany announced that it was sending 600 more troops, raising the German contingent to 3800. France pledged to send an extra 400 and Denmark promised an additional 100. Meanwhile, the first 150 soldiers of a promised 750-strong deployment of British troops landed in Pristina, following the arrival of 150 U.S. troops and 80 Italian Carabinieri on Thursday.
The United Nations Security Council called on Albanians and Serbs to put an end to the unrest in Kosovo. Secretary General Kofi Annan warned against an escalation of a conflict that could have "unpredictable consequences."
During a heated Security Council session on Thursday night, Germany and the majority of the council squared off against Serbia-Montenegro and Russia, who claimed the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were solely responsible for the latest wave of violence. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer called on both Albanian and Serb political leaders to defend democratic values and for the government of Serbia-Montenegro to prevent acts of revenge against Albanians in Serbia.
"We're calling on everyone, on all sides, to immediately cease the violence," Fischer said.
Fischer's appeal was also explicitly stated in a joint Security Council statement issued after the meeting. Annan also condemned the riots. In the first wave of attacks, thousands of ethnic Albanians sparred with NATO peacekeepers, UN staff, police and Serbs and Serb Orthodox churches. In retaliation, Serbs then attacked mosques around the country.
"The deliberate targeting of religious sights such as churches, cemeteries and monasteries is shameful and inexcusable," Annan said.
Smoke billows from Serbian Orthodox Church
The Serbs have accused Kosovo's ethnic Albanians of inciting the riots. Serbia-Montenegro's Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic said Kosovo Albanians alone were to blame for the violence -- a position backed by Serbia's closest ally, Russia. Svilanovic also criticized the joint statement adopted by the Security Council, saying "such statements are understood and taken by the extremists as expressions of weakness."
The latest riots show that the underlying ethnic tensions between ethnic Serbs and Albanians still persist on a dangerous scale, even five years after the 1999 NATO bombings. "We have not come far enough," Annan said. "Mutual respect between different communities is still not the accepted norm that it should be."
Both Annan and Fischer called on leaders in the region to increase understanding and cooperation between different ethnic groups. Fischer said the people now had a choice between a "tolerant" and "democratic" society "or they live in chaos and misery."