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Putin: Kosovo's Serbs Need Protection - 2004-03-20

Russian President Vladimir Putin says Kosovo's Serbs have to be protected from ethnic cleansing, and Russia cannot remain indifferent to events in that troubled region.

Mr. Putin Saturday ordered Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to redefine Russia's position on Kosovo. He said Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu will move forward over the next few days with a planned visit to the region.

Mr. Lavrov reinforced Mr. Putin's comments, saying the developments in Kosovo had been provoked by outside forces. He said the U.N.-assisted settlement plan in Kosovo has been called into question.

Mr. Putin and Mr. Lavrov made their comments in Moscow, at a meeting of Mr. Putin's cabinet.

Meanwhile, patrolling NATO troops have imposed a tense calm in the Serbian province of Kosovo where violence erupted between Serbs and ethnic Albanians three days ago.

More than 2,000 NATO peacekeepers arrived from Bosnia-Herzegovina Friday to reinforce the alliance's 17,000 soldiers already in the region.

At least 28 people have been killed and at least 600 others wounded in fighting that broke out on Wednesday. There were no immediate reports of violence overnight or Saturday.

On Friday, the NATO commander for southeastern Europe Admiral Gregory Johnson described the clashes as not far from "ethnic cleansing." NATO, which has suffered more than 60 casualties in the latest violence, has authorized the use of deadly force if peacekeepers are fired upon.

NATO troops have evacuated ethnic Serbs in the majority Albanian southern half of Kosovo, which was then torched and looted by crowds of Albanians. Serbian nationalists retaliated by burning mosques.

The violence erupted after rumors spread in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica that Serbian children had chased three Albanian boys into an icy river, where two of the boys drowned.