KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Serbia-Montenegro — Serbs and ethnic Albanians traded heavy gunfire Wednesday across the Ibar River, killing at least six people and wounding almost 300 in the worst outbreak of violence in this ethnically divided city since a bus bombing three years ago.

The killings, a setback to international struggle to ease tension in Kosovo, were provoked by reports that two ethnic Albanian boys drowned after they jumped in an icy river to escape angry Serbs. A third was missing.

Eleven French peacekeeping soldiers were wounded — two seriously — by stones and shrapnel from a hand grenade, according to NATO spokesman Capt. Athanasios Zormbas.

Wednesday's fighting was the worst of its kind since February 2001, when ethnic Albanian terrorists blew up a bus carrying Serbs, killing 11 and injuring 40. Clashes between Serbs and ethnic Albanians were also reported in several other towns in the region.

The violence was concentrated at the main bridge over the Ibar, which divides Kosovska Mitrovica and has been the site of past violence.

Hospital personnel on the Serb and ethnic Albanian sides of the town said four ethnic Albanians had died, apparently of gunshot wounds. Initial reports had said three Serbs were shot to death, but hospital officials later lowered that to two.

NATO-led peacekeepers in the tense city fired tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades to separate the angry residents.

Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations and NATO-led peacekeepers since June 1999, after a NATO air campaign drove Serb-dominated troops loyal to former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic out of the province and stopped a crackdown on the independence-minded Kosovo Albanian majority. An estimated 10,000 people died in that war, most of them ethnic Albanians.

The United Nations, assisted by NATO-led peacekeepers, has sought to foster ethnic tolerance since then. Still, with predominantly Orthodox Christian Serbs regarding Kosovo as their ancient homeland and ethnic Albanians, who are primarily Muslims, seeking independence, hatred between the two sides continues to provoke violence.

A man in the crowd of ethnic Albanians gathered on the southern side of Kosovska Mitrovica was seen firing with a submachine gun toward the crowd of Serbs on the other side of the bridge.

Xhelal Ibrahimi, an ethnic Albanian witness covered by the blood of a victim he helped, said gunfire came from the Serb-dominated part of the town, and he saw several people falling in front of him. Hospital workers on the southern side, dominated by ethnic Albanians, counted 200 hurt, including several who were shot.

On the Serb side, Milan Ivanovic, a hospital physician, said 80 Serbs were wounded including an unknown number shot and some of those in critical condition. One was shot in the head and one in the lungs, while others were hit by stones, rubber bullets fired by peacekeepers or shrapnel from their stun grenades.

Ambulances with the wounded lined up near the hospital in the southern part of town. Those with more serious injuries were taken to the hospital in the provincial capital of Pristina. Dozens of armored vehicles streamed toward town, as NATO-led peacekeepers increased security.

Earlier, the peacekeepers blocked off the bridge after crowds started gathering on both sides. At least one U.N. vehicle was destroyed by a mob with rocks and chunks of concrete.

Police and NATO troops continued firing tear gas at concentrations of people to keep them from reforming and storming the bridge. The span itself was draped with concertina wire and blocked by armored vehicles manned by peacekeepers under French command. Acrid smoke from exploding tear gas canisters rose in the air.

Clashes similar to Wednesday's violence left nine people dead in 1999 at the same bridge, shortly after the end of all-out warfare between ethnic Albanians and Serbs.

Less than half of the 40,000 NATO troops originally in Kosovo now remain, including about 2,000 Americans. Washington and its allies had hoped that troops in Kosovo and elsewhere in the Balkans could soon be drawn down further and redeployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other new areas of conflict.

In another hotspot near 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. U.N. spokeswoman Angela Joseph said there were reports that hand grenades had been thrown and that two Serb houses were on fire. "We assume there's a conflict going on" in Caglavica, Joseph said, but she could offer no details.

In a live radio broadcast from Caglavica, an unidentified witness said people were attacking each other with sticks and stones in village streets, amid the sound of explosions and gunfire.

In the western village of Belopolje, ethnic Albanians drove out Serb residents and set fire to their houses, Joseph said. And in Pec, 50 miles west of Pristina, ethnic Albanians had attacked the regional U.N. headquarters and damaged U.N. vehicles.

The bodies of the children were found after dozens of soldiers, police and civil emergency workers searched the Ibar River near the village of Cabra, some 25 miles north of Pristina, Joseph said. The search was launched after reports that three ethnic Albanian children had disappeared in the swirling waters Tuesday.

View Comments

Fitim Veseli, 13, who said he was with the missing children, claimed they were being chased by local Serbs and that the boys jumped into the river to escape a dog set on them by two Serbs from a neighboring village. Veseli's 9-year-old brother, Florent, was among the missing.

Police were still investigating, Joseph said.

The drownings occurred a day after a 19-year-old Serb was shot and wounded in central Kosovo. The shooting provoked a protest Tuesday by angry Kosovo Serbs, who blocked a key road linking the province's capital with neighboring Macedonia. The Serbs later pulled back, but the road remained blocked by NATO-led peacekeepers Wednesday as a precaution, police said.

Later, some 800 ethnic Albanians broke police and NATO roadblocks and headed to the central Kosovo village of Caglavica, a primarily Serb village three miles south of Pristina, where Serbs were apparently waiting for them, police said.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.