Serbs in Kosovo Set 2 Border Posts Afire

Poor and mostly Muslim but feverishly pro-Western, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on Sunday, ending a long chapter in the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia. U.S. President George Bush hailed the newly independent Kosovo and officially recognized it as a state and a "close friend" on Monday.

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By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Kosovo, Feb. 19 -- Serbs protesting Kosovo's declaration of independence torched two border posts manned by the United Nations along the northern border with Serbia on Tuesday as up to 2,000 protesters, some driving bulldozers, destroyed customs posts.

No one was injured, but the attacks were emblematic of the determination of the Serb minority in Kosovo, particularly in the exclusively Serb area around this city, to resist the idea that a new international border has been created.

"This is Serbia," said Dragan Mitrovic, a 48-year-old resident of Mitrovica, which is about 18 miles south of the border posts. "The Serbian army and Serbian police should be here."

Officials in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, insist they will peacefully resist Kosovo independence.

"We're not going to use force. Everything else is fair play," said Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic at a news conference Tuesday after an emergency meeting in Vienna of the permanent council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

But international officials here, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were concerned that Serbian radicals were being bused into northern Kosovo and might try to elicit a violent response from the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo in order to plunge the former Serbian province into crisis.

Any sign that northern Kosovo was attempting to institutionalize its ties to Belgrade and partition this city would inflame ethnic Albanians, who are separated from Serbs by only a small bridge in Mitrovica.

Western diplomats are urging Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership to maintain tight control of its own population so it does not respond to what international officials fear will be an escalating series of provocations. The goal of the international community appears to be to maintain stability so that the Serb community can exhaust its anger. Kosovo is 90 percent ethnic Albanian.

A European Union mission, which will supervise Kosovo's independence, will not deploy for 120 days, allowing some time to temper the anger in Belgrade and among local Serbs. Moreover, a number of Serb communities, deeper inside Kosovo and surrounded by ethnic Albanian communities, have in the past shown greater willingness to cooperate with the international community.

Peter Miletic, whose Independent Liberal Party has drawn some support in Serb communities outside Mitrovica, said his party is even willing to enter the independent Kosovo parliament if security is maintained and isolated Serbs are not attacked.

"We will not recognize an independent Kosovo," said Miletic, secretary general of the party. "But it's not a good idea to lose contact with Albanians, and it's even worse to lose contact with the international community."

But, he acknowledged, his position is very much in the minority and opens up his party, and Serbs who support it, to charges of collaboration.


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