Kosovo tensions rise as pressure increases

Officials meet in Vienna this week for final status talks, which the West hopes will wrap up by year end.

Albin Kurti knows jail. The 31-year-old activist has been arrested more than 30 times in the past year and a half in his quest to bring independence to Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanian population.

But he takes it in stride.

"In June I was only arrested twice," says Mr. Kurti, whose Self-Determination movement has scattered leaflets decrying the UN mission to Kosovo (UNMIK), showered Serbian leaders' convoys with rotten eggs, and spray-painted slogans on the concrete barriers surrounding the UN's fortresslike building in Kosovo's capital, Pristina.

Kurti's movement – which he says has grown by a third in recent months – is just one thorn in the side of UNMIK, which has administered the southern Serbian province since NATO bombing drove out the Serbian military seven years ago. Simmering tensions in the region are threatening to reach a boiling point as UN-appointed envoy Martti Ahtisaari hosts a seventh round of negotations in Vienna this week, aimed at settling the province's final status: Albanian Kosovars favor independence, while Serbia is pushing for the province to remain under its control.

Kosovo's minority Serbs, concentrated in the north, have ended cooperation with the Pristina government. Just over half of ethnic Albanians, meanwhile, support to some extent Kurti's Self-Determination movement. The latest UNMIK head resigned last month. And a rift between governments of the West, which advocate a solution by the end of the year, and the government of Russia, which fears that an independent Kosovo would set a precedent for its own breakaway provinces, could further stall the process.

Four municipalities in the Serb-dominated north, the part of Kosovo that rubs shoulders with Serbia proper, announced in June that because of the Kosovo police's failure to solve several murders there, they would no longer cooperate with the Pristina-based Kosovo government or other institutions. Rumors soon abounded that the Serbs had organized their own security by mobilizing former Serb army reservists.

"Don't get me wrong and think this means forming paramilitaries," says Momir Kasalovic, who heads a regional coordination office in the north's main town, Kosovska Mitrovica, that serves as a liaison between Kosovar Serbs there and the Serbian government. "Rather, people are being watchful. They're surveilling and following the movements of suspicious people, people who don't have good intentions."

But Mr. Kasalovic says that though some Serbs, like some ethnic Albanians, may have held on to their weapons from the 1990s, most are unarmed.

"A rifle is not a cellphone – you can't hide it in your pocket," he says, adding that it would be "technically impossible" to form a paramilitary group, given the presence of international forces. In addition to the UN presence, the 17,000-strong NATO peacekeeping force here, KFOR, has reopened a base in the northern town of Leposavic.

Still, when asked what would happen if Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians tried to take over the north, which has Serbian-funded hospitals, schools, and telephone infrastructure, Kasalovic says, "It would be bloody."

Hotel owner Bratislav Pantujevic – a former "bridge watcher'" who kept ethnic Albanians from crossing into Serbian north Mitrovica in the years after the NATO war – agrees.

"I'm staying here until the end. If there are any problems, if it comes to that, the Albanians won't get everything they want."

The rumblings from the Serb north are nothing new, says Steven Schook, who has been acting head of UNMIK since Soren Jessen-Petersen vacated the post at the end of June. A new head should be appointed this month.

"What is new are the political statements of these municipality presidents, that have said they'll no longer be connected to or supportive of or driven by the government in Pristina," Mr. Schook says.

"It's very irresponsible and it's horrible timing to be conducting these kinds of statements and these kinds of assembly proceedings right now."

Schook says the line from the UN is firm: no partition of the province, and a solution by the end of the year. Any solution will come from recommendations made by Mr. Ahtisaari, which would then form the basis for a UN Security Council resolution that would replace the 1999 resolution outlining UNMIK's role.

Passing a new resolution could take months, as Russia – a veto-wielding Security Council member – isn't keen to see Kosovo formally break away from Serbia.

Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, recently warned against "precipitous" moves toward Kosovo independence, saying it would stir up pro-independence forces in other territories. Meanwhile, advance teams from the European Union are on the ground in Kosovo, scoping out a possible follow-on mission that could take over as soon as mid-2007.

But UNMIK is certainly not leaving now, much to the chagrin of the Self-Determination activists such as Kurti, whom Schook recently ran into.

"I'm always respectful of anybody who has convictions and beliefs, but I find it difficult to understand the targets of their message," he says wryly. "I said to him, 'It makes no sense to me that you let the air out of our tires if you want us to leave quickly. You should be going around checking the air and making sure it's good.' "

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