MITROVICA FLASHPOINT FOR THE NEXT BALKAN WAR The Toronto Star February 23, 2000, Susan Blaustein

The divided northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica has long been regarded as the flashpoint most likely to sink the international peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. Yet, Kosovo's top international officials have allowed the long- smoldering violence there to explode, underscoring again how their failure of will promotes the agenda of indicted war criminal and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Mitrovica is not just another Balkan cauldron of centuries-old hatreds. The city is a lynchpin in Belgrade's ''Greater Serbia'' strategy of expelling non- Serbs from the region.

Milosevic has never had more than a propaganda interest in northern Kosovo's historically significant monasteries. But he does have a keen financial interest in the Trepca complex of mines and downstream processing facilities, including a smelter in Zvecan, which is widely believed to have served the regime as an efficient money-laundering mechanism. Since the deployment of NATO's Kosovo Force, or KFOR, Trepca's Serb directors, who report to Milosevic, have continued to operate the smelter to process ores trucked in by foreign companies still doing business with the regime.

Mitrovica is Milosevic's only remaining foothold in Kosovo and it is there he has decided to call the bluff of the international community, in flagrant violation of the peace accord. With the apparent acquiescence of the French KFOR command, which has been loath to risk casualties, and the local U.N. administrators, Milosevic continues to send Serbian police and paramilitary forces across the Serbia-Kosovo border and into the Mitrovica area. These operatives monitor, harass, terrorize and expel ethnic Albanian civilians who dare to live in or travel to the Serb side of town, where the hospital and university are located.

For months, French commanders have denied there were Serbian police or paramilitary troops in the area, despite reliable reports to the contrary. After last week's wounding of two French soldiers, the death of an ethnic Albanian shot by the French and ethnic Albanian outrage at what they perceive as blatant French partisanship, the French troops were replaced by British troops. German, Dutch and Italian reinforcements were sent in, too, and, on Thursday, the first of 300 U.N. international police were deployed to Mitrovica.

But the French remain in overall command and from all appearances, German KFOR Gen. Klaus Reinhardt continues to accept their assessments of the situation. More worrisome, Reinhardt and an increasing number of frustrated international officials are abandoning the U.N.'s stated commitment to create and protect a multi-ethnic society in Kosovo. Instead, they favour something closer to their French colleagues' view that mixing the two populations is impossible, and all that can be done is to keep the two from killing each other.

This passive style of peacekeeping has emboldened Milosevic to press his hand further in Mitrovica, by attempting to keep control of Trepca and by spurring the harassment and expulsions of ethnic Albanians from the Serb side of town. They have responded aggressively with sniper attacks, marauding incursions into southern Serbia and, allegedly, the fatal ambush of a KFOR-escorted U.N. bus carrying Serbs too afraid to travel on their own.

The next night in Mitrovica, a riot left seven ethnic Albanians dead and 34 wounded, among them five peacekeepers. Ten days later, two more French peacekeepers were wounded, as ethnic Albanian gunmen reportedly fired on Serbs who had set houses on fire. The French fired back, killing an ''Albanian sniper'' whom human-rights monitors and journalists insist was unarmed. The French wounded four other alleged snipers and arrested 46 people, 45 of them ethnic Albanians.

If the initial attack on the U.N. bus was, in fact, carried out by ethnic Albanian extremists, that incident was not unprovoked. The international community's continued willingness to turn a blind eye to the Serbs' oppression of ethnic Albanians simply trying to live or work in northern Mitrovica has made the ethnic Albanians impatient not only with their foreign protectors but also with their moderate leaders. They are left with no choice but to turn to Albanian extremists for help. Former Kosovo Liberation Army officers recently began informal recruiting in Pristina. On Wednesday, Kosovar political leader and former KLA commander Hashim Thaci warned the international community that Mitrovica's violence ''could spread to other parts of Kosovo.''

The standoff in Mitrovica must be brought to an end, with the help of a resolute and robust KFOR presence, international mediation and, perhaps, as is being contemplated at U.N. headquarters, a carefully chosen international administration for the city. All Serb police and paramilitary units should be arrested and tried, or thrown out of Kosovo, all gun-wielding ethnic Albanians and Kosovar Serbs disarmed and detained.

Without such an immediate display of backbone on the part of both those international officials posted in Mitrovica and those leading the Kosovo mission, the international community will have failed Milosevic's latest test of its resolve and will bear at least partial responsibility for his next Balkan war.

Susan Blaustein, a journalist and senior consultant with the International Crisis Group, recently spent time in Mitrovica.