ALBANIANS and Serbs fought pitched battles in towns and villages across Kosovo yesterday, leaving at least eight people dead and injuring nearly 300 in the heaviest street clashes since the arrival of NATO troops in 1999.
The worst violence came in the divided northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica, after thousands of angry Albanians gathered to protest against the apparent drowning of two children who were reportedly chased into a river by Serbs.
But in a sign that the outbreak of violence could have been planned, Serb enclaves in the towns of Caglavica and Gracanica, as well as villages elsewhere, were also attacked. A senior international United Nations police official said: "The situation is not under control. This is planned, co-ordinated, one-way violence from the Albanians against the Serbs. It is spreading and has been brewing for the past week.
"Nothing in Kosovo happens spontaneously."
Crowds had begun gathering at both ends of the Ibar crossing in Kosovska Mitrovica in mid-morning, after Albanian media reported that Albanian boys aged nine and 12 had drowned in the river near the town.
The reports quoted a survivor as saying they had been chased into the water by a gang of Serb youths taking revenge for the near-fatal shooting of a Serb teenager in Caglavica, a village near the capital, Pristina.
UN police confirmed they had found two bodies in the river and were looking for a third boy. A spokesman said it was unclear how they had died and expressed shock that the media had rushed to judgment.
But it was too late and by late afternoon, Kosovska Mitrovica was a war zone. Serbs and Albanians on either side of the river pelted each other with stones and exchanged gunfire from rooftops and balconies.
NATO-led peacekeepers fired teargas and rubber bullets in an attempt to stop the Albanians crossing the bridge to the Serb half of the town. A UN spokesman said at least a dozen members of the peacekeeping force, KFOR, had been injured.
"This is a very dangerous situation. This is very large-scale," said Derek Chappell, a UN police spokesman.
Hospital personnel on both the Serb and ethnic Albanian sides of Kosovska Mitrovica said six ethnic Albanians had died, apparently of gunshot wounds, and that two Serbs had died.
The hospital on the ethnic Albanian southern side of town was a scene of chaos, with doctors in crowded corridors urging people to give blood. Their voices were occasionally drowned out by the cries of relatives looking for loved ones among the victims.
"I just felt pain and went down on the ground," said Ridvan Lahu, 41, who was shot in the stomach.
Hospital employees counted more than 200 injured.
On the Serb side, Milan Ivanovic, a hospital physician, said 80 Serbs were wounded, some critically.
With automatic gunfire ringing out in Mitrovica, hundreds of Albanians headed for Caglavica, where they broke through a UN blockade and set fire to about ten Serb homes. Fighting broke out as KFOR helicopters circled overhead.
A journalist said the village was barely visible through the smoke from fires, and reported hearing loud explosions.
Violence was also reported in nearby Kosovo Polje, where Albanians set fire to a Serb health centre.
In the village of Belopolje, ethnic Albanians drove out Serb residents and set fire to their houses, the UN said. In Pec, 50 miles west of Pristina, ethnic Albanians attacked the local UN base and damaged the organisation’s vehicles.
Albanians reportedly set fire to three Serb homes in Pec and some 30 Serbs took shelter in a church, which was then stoned by Albanians. Shooting was also reported in the area.
With most of Mitrovica back under KFOR control by early evening, UN staff imposed a curfew and warned that anyone found outdoors during the night would be arrested.
As leaders in Pristina and Belgrade appealed for calm, Serbia’s new prime minister demanded an urgent session of the UN Security Council.
Vojislav Kostunica, who recently called for the partitioning of Kosovo, said the province’s current set-up had "clearly failed the test". His comments came after an emergency session of the government.
Kosovo has been under UN protection since 1999.