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A tall order to protect all Kosovars

A mortar attack shows the difficulties in preserving Kosovo's multiethnic society

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At the top of the most-wanted list in the American sector of Kosovo is a suspect US troops have nicknamed the "Mad Mortar Man."

For weeks, peacekeepers say, an ethnic Albanian has terrorized the few Serbs remaining here by firing mortar shells randomly into Serbian villages, even as American forces have tried to hunt him down. US gunners once had him in their sights, but NATO rules forbade taking a shot, and he slipped away.

On Monday night in Klokot, where a Monitor reporter was on patrol with peacekeepers, the mortar shooter hit a target for the first time. Two Serbian teenagers were killed, five other Serbs were wounded, and Kosovo's cycle of violence - which NATO has vowed to stop - deepened further.

The mandate of the 40,000-strong KFOR troops is to protect every person and preserve a multiethnic society. But the case of the mortar shooter, coupled with continuing anti-Serbian attacks, shows that achieving this lofty aim remains elusive, and may prove impossible.

"It's getting pretty hard to look these people in the eye and tell them we can do anything about it," says Lt. Col. Tim Reese, the US Army battalion commander for the most active area in the American sector. "The Serbs are very nervous. Every day they make a decision to stay or not to stay."

The 78 days of NATO airstrikes were meant to halt a three-month ethnic assault of Kosovar Albanians by Serbian security forces earlier this year. Some 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed, and more than 800,000 fled. For ordering that assault, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has been indicted by the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague.

But NATO victory and the ethnic Albanian return caused most of the 200,000 Serbs in the province to flee, fearing revenge. The UN estimates that 46 Serbian and mixed villages remain, and that number is dwindling despite elaborate security efforts.

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