Thousands of Serbs march to protest NATO takeover of a metal smelter

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia - Thousands of Serbs marched Tuesday to protest NATO's takeover of a metal smelter, a move U. N. officials said was to meant to shut down a major polluter. Yugoslavia and Russia described it as a blow to Kosovo's Serbs.

''The mine is our destiny, the foundations of our lives and security and no one has the right to gamble with it,'' said Oliver Ivanovic, a leader in the Serb half of Kosovska Mitrovica.

He spoke to up to 3,000 Serbs who marched through the streets after assembling in their part of the industrial city, 30 miles north of Pristina, Kosovo's capital.

The protest came a day after NATO-led peacekeepers moved in to halt production at the plant, which U.N. officials here say pumps toxic waste into the air.

Earlier, Serb workers infuriated by the takeover had massed at the gates of the mining complex in Zvecan, near Kosovska Mitrovica.

Twenty employees remained inside throughout the day, insisting they wanted to work, U.N. spokesman Michael Keats said.

Ignoring the danger of resistance from the local, predominantly Serb community, 900 soldiers from Britain, France, Belgium and Denmark took over the plant Monday and secured the facility at the Trepca mining complex, seen by some as the economic linchpin of Kosovo's economy.

British soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse those who tried to interfere in the pre-dawn raid. Four soldiers and at least one Serb civilian were injured, NATO said. Serb media said as many as six were injured.

French and Danish peacekeepers also blocked the main entrance and stationed vehicles along the road connecting Zvecan with Mitrovica.

Keats said the plant's Serb manager - barred from the province on the eve of the takeover - would not be permitted to return.

At the rally later in Mitrovica, the plant's chief Serb engineer, Dragisa Djokovic, accused the barred manager of ''selling out'' the complex and working for President Slobodan Milosevic's regime suspected by Mitrovica Serbs of betraying them.

Before dispersing peacefully Tuesday, Serbs announced new protests outside the plant's gates for Wednesday morning and pledged to ''keep fighting for their jobs and livelihoods.''

Many fear the NATO takeover means they have lost their jobs - the plant was the region's dwindling Serb community's primary source of income - and that the peacekeepers would bring Albanian workers into the Zvecan plant instead. Kosovska Mitrovica is divided into Serb and ethnic Albanian sections, and has been the site of frequent ethnically motivated clashes.

The Yugoslav government protested the Trepca takeover at the U.N. Security Council, calling the move an ''illegal and violent act'' and demanding it be revoked, the state Tanjug news agency reported.

Yugoslavia's U.N. representative Vladislav Jovanovic called the health-related explanation for the takeover by Bernard Kouchner, the top U.N. administrator for Kosovo, ''cynical.''

Russia, a traditional Serb ally, also rejected the U.N. explanation.

''Even if we talk about the alleged ecological catastrophe ... this in no instance can justify forceful actions by the international presence, which cannot be evaluated other than as an attempt to seize property which doesn't belong to them,'' said a statement from the Foreign Ministry.

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