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NATO-led peacekeepers, with Canadians among them, clashed with Kosovo Albanians who tried to storm a bridge dividing this volatile city into Serb-dominated and Albanian-dominated sides.

Canadian, British, French and Danish troops held them off with tear gas and bare hands. The rioters, part of a crowd of 60,000 marching in protest against Serb control of the northern part of the town, dispersed after several hours.

Canadian and British troops bore the brunt of yesterday's violence, forming human chains to stop the protesters, Reuters reported. The protesters waved Albanian flags with a black eagle on a red backdrop and jeered and whistled at Serbs gathered at the other end of the bridge.

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They battled the crowd for about two hours before tension died down. The area south of the bridge resembled a battlefield at times, with tear gas swirling and coils of barbed wire strewn across the muddy ground.

The previous day, peacekeepers clashed with Serbs in the town, who were angered by a weapons search NATO forces conducted.

"It would have been a disaster if they had broken through," the commander of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force, German General Klaus Reinhardt, said of the protesters.

Colonel Ivan Fenton, commander of the Canadian Forces in Kosovo, told CBC Newsworld earlier yesterday that there was a scuffle on one of the bridges but he didn't know whether anyone had been hurt.

Col. Fenton said, "Any time the two sides are living close together, especially if one side has a numerical advantage over the other, there is still violence. There is a lot of pent-up hatred. . . . There are incidents.

"It just demonstrates to us how corrosive hatred is. We see it all around us here. It's especially prevalent in Mitrovica right now," he said.

Earlier in the day, thousands of ethnic Albanians ran into the city, a major flashpoint between the two hostile ethnic groups, and toward the bridge after walking for several hours from the provincial capital, Pristina.

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They joined local Albanians already there, swelling the crowd to tens of thousands. Serbs gathered on the other side.

Gen. Reinhardt praised his soldiers, saying he believed they prevented major clashes.

The commander of the Kosovo contingent of Britain's Royal Greenjackets, Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Carter, told Reuters he had estimated the size of the crowd stretching back from the bridge at 60,000-70,000 people. Other NATO officials gave varying estimates of the crowd size -- ranging from 25,000 to 50,000.

A KFOR spokesman, British Warrant Officer Mark Cox, said two French soldiers were slightly injured. He had no information on any injuries to civilians.

Yesterday's clashes were the latest in a series of violent incidents in the troubled city. At least nine people, Albanians and Serbs, have died and about 20 others have been wounded in armed violence this month in Mitrovica.

Yesterday's march took place as KFOR was winding down a large-scale search for weapons and paramilitary criminals in Mitrovica that began on the weekend.

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"I'm always concerned because they're in a country filled with hate," Col. Fenton said of the Canadian soldiers. They're in an area here where people use violence as a means to settle any dispute or to show their displeasure.

"But our people are well prepared; they are well trained, and they are well protected. And they are doing a task they know is important.

"We hope that we can maintain the stability long enough for these people to cool down and for their leaders to find the way ahead so that they can live a more peaceful life than the path of the last 10 years," Col. Fenton said.

The Associated Press reported that a sign the Serbs were prepared for a showdown, some Serb women and children began evacuating the city, and a local Serb leader, Nikola Kabasic, told a Belgrade radio station that the Serbs were bringing in reinforcements from neighbouring villages to defend their part of the city if NATO cannot control the Albanians.

A local Serb leader said yesterday's march and the search were synchronized to expel the Serb population from Mitrovica.

"NATO and the UN police are incapable of securing a peaceful life in Kosovo," Vuko Antonijevic of the Serb National Council in Mitrovica told Yugoslavia's Beta news agency.

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Kosovo Albanians formed the majority in both halves of the city before fleeing Serb repression in NATO's 11-week bombing campaign last year.

Albanians say they dare not return to their homes in the area they fled, now dominated by Serbs.

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