With an office but 200 metres from the only bridge over the Ibar River that connects the town's Albanian south and Serbian north, Mitrovica Mayor Avni Kastrati said he believes that the security situation in the town has greatly improved.
The tension is eased, he said, despite an April 7th incident in which an Albanian was killed in a blast in the northern part of the city. "The citizens understood it as an unorganised act, meaning, it was done by a group of extremists," Kastrati said in an exclusive interview with SETimes.
The incident prompted the authorities to significantly enhance security, including bringing in forces from surrounding towns. They are more visible and more accessible, ready to act on a moment's notice if requested by citizens.
"EULEX and KFOR have re-organised and now there are 24-hour patrols in mixed neighbourhoods, in addition to foot patrols. The latest EULEX decision to move together with the Kosovo police from 8am to 4pm in the sensitive areas is having an impact," Kastrati said.
He is particularly keen to correct media reports that 40 Albanian families have left northern Kosovo since the April 7th incident, among the 11,000 Albanians who have reportedly left since 1999.
"I have the registers in my office, name and surname, and for the moment only seven families have withdrawn temporarily. They have not left, but have gone for two or three days. It was a tense situation and people were frightened," Kastrati said.
Despite the security gains, however, Kastrati cautioned the authorities are vigilant because of Serbia's elections on May 6th, which he called a critical day for Kosovo.
Serbian-elected mayors in northern Kosovo said they plan to conduct Sunday’s elections, including in northern Mitrovica -- an act Pristina and the international community call illegal.
"First ... they know the elections will be unacceptable. But if they attempt to organise the elections, citizens will not cause tensions because they are sure the Kosovo police, together with the international community, will act according to the constitution," Kastrati said.
A complicating factor for him is that since 1999, northern Mitrovica has been under dual UN and Serbian-organised municipal administration.
Kosovo's legislation stipulates that expenses for the UNMIK administration in northern Mitrovica, including salaries and capital investments, are covered by the Mitrovica municipality budget.
But Kastrati explained the local authorities do not have enough oversight of spending in northern Mitrovica, which causes significant problems for the mayor's office as well as for the budget it commands.
"The law on public procurement for public spending was not implemented until a year ago, and we have intensified our activities and do not transfer money if the procedures are not maintained. Many projects which must be implemented throughout the year are done at the end of the year or during the last months, which is not right," Kastrati said.
He said Mitrovica authorities proposed that the ministry of finance set up a separate budget for UNMIK.
"Auditing public spending, which must be done everywhere, is not done. We have tried to go there and did not succeed, because neither UNMIK nor external auditors co-operate," Kastrati said.
He said the potential revitalisation of the Trepcha mine offers great hope to calm inter-ethnic problems. "If the issue of Trepcha is resolved, many issues, not to say all, will be resolved," he said.
Trepcha was one of the biggest industrial enterprises in the former Yugoslavia, employing over 23,000 people from throughout Kosovo.
"Trepcha is managed by the privatisation agency, and they [in Trepcha] do not have many decision-making rights. So if a modality is found for Trepcha to begin working, it will be one of the main elements to overcome the tense situation in Mitrovica," Kastrati said, adding that just the fact Albanians and Serbs would work together will have a positive impact.
Kastrati said he hopeful that Mitrovica one day will be a unified town again and the Ahtisaari plan is the key to resolving the problem.
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