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Monday, August 16, 1999 Published at 13:28 GMT 14:28 UK

World: Europe

Kosovo Albanians call off protests

French forces prevented the Albanians from crossing the bridge

Kosovo Albanian leaders have called off demonstrations at a bridge dividing the northern mining town of Mitrovica, which has been the scene of confrontations with French peacekeeping troops.

Kosovo: Special Report
The protests were cancelled after a plan was drawn up to enable Albanian families to return to their homes in the Serb-dominated part of town across the Ibar river.

Angry demonstrators demanding that Albanians be allowed to return to their homes across the bridge engaged the French peacekeepers in often violent clashes over four consecutive days last week.

The Albanian mayor, Bajram Rexhepi, told a crowd on the south side of the bridge that about 25 Albanian families a day would be escorted back to their homes on the north side.

[ image: The protests often came to a violent end]
The protests often came to a violent end
The agreement - worked out with the help of the United Nations mission in Kosovo and international peacekeepers - was still being finalised, he said. But the mayor hoped the families could begin returning home as soon as Tuesday.

"There is an agreement with the international community. Serbs are part of the agreement," Mr Rexhepi told the 150-strong crowd.

A total of 1,200 families were waiting to go back to the Serb-dominated sector, he said.

The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) - blamed for much of the anti-Serb violence in the province since Yugoslav forces withdrew - has backed the proposed agreement.

The local KLA commander, Rrahman Rama, urged those arriving at the bridge for the protesters to go home.

No-one 'out on the street'

Mary-Pat Silveira, the deputy UN chief in Mitrovica, said she hoped that some Albanian families could begin returning to the city this week.

[ image: French troops still guard the controversial crossing]
French troops still guard the controversial crossing
She said the problem with the resettlement plan was that some of the apartments are now occupied by other displaced people, some of them Serbs, and officials have to find alternative shelters for the other people before the Albanians return home.

But she added: "We will not put people out in the street."

Ms Silveira also said the UN and Nato were establishing a special committee to make daily visits to families who returned.

French soldiers would escort families back to their homes, but it was not clear how much protection the French would provide afterwards, she added.

Serbs return

News of the resettlement plan came as some 200 Serb railway workers arrived in Kosovo Polje - the largest known group of Serbs to return to Kosovo since June.

Many Serbs had fled the province to escape the wrath of Albanians infuriated by alleged atrocities by Serb forces who pulled out of Kosovo in June.

Three buses arrived in Kosovo Polje early on Monday carrying the Serbs who are to begin working at the local railway station.

They were escorted by two armoured personnel carriers and a UN jeep. A few local Serbs awaited them at the railway station.

UN official Terry Stewart said the returning Serbs would start working after being registered.

"This is the biggest return of Serbs in the last six weeks. I hope that they will stay here."

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