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Serbs try to claim a piece of Kosovo

The Serb-dominated area of Mitrovica is a flash point, and could be lost to Serbia.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Beth KampschrorCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 21, 2008

Border crossing: A French soldier carried barbed wire as KFOR troops worked to reinforce a United Nations checkpoint Wednesday, which was torched by angry Kosovo Serbs the day before.

Srdjan Ilic/AP

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The independence party in Kosovo has gone slightly sideways. Days after fireworks over Pristina, Kosovo Serbs in the large northern enclave of Mitrovica have deepened the divide between themselves and the Albanian majority to the south, raising concerns of permanent partition. Well-organized Serb groups are allowing militant convoys from Serbia proper into Kosovo, torching United Nations-controlled entry points on the border, and beating up non-Serbs.

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The Serb stronghold of Mitrovica has nearly become a no-go zone for outsiders – just days after the tiny state of Kosovo declared independence. A bridge over the Ibar River that runs through the city of Mitrovica, dividing Albanians from Serbs, may now become a larger symbol of East-West divides. Optimists feel that time and trade will change this.

US, Germany, Italy, France, and Britain quickly recognized Kosovo – but Russia has backed Serbs' bitter denial of Kosovo statehood.

Without the use of NATO's 17,000 KFOR troops or UN forces, which no one expects, Kosovo's territory is likely to split.

"Unless NATO forces decide to cross the Ibar in force on behalf of the new Kosovo government, a de facto partition will result," says Balkan expert R. Bruce Hitchner of Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Wednesday, an evening rally in front of the parliament building in Belgrade was called by the Serbian government to denounce Kosovo's independence; a large turnout was expected.

Large, raucous convoys of cars and trucks with plates and markings from Belgrade and central Serbia entered Mitrovica from Serbia proper for much of Tuesday. Many drivers were men chanting "Kosovo is Serbia" and making the Serb three-finger salute; they were waved on by sympathetic Kosovo Serb border police who are supposed to stop and check vehicles.

Two UN customs border posts were bulldozed by masked Serb paramilitary forces; journalists, including a Japanese wearing a UN vest, were beaten up on the Serb side of the Mitrovica bridge in a so-called "confidence zone" – putting into question the European Union's forthcoming "rule of law" mission to the largest Serb enclave.

A major challenge in coming days is whether Brussels's mission, voted on Monday, can even enter the Mitrovica zone – given that Serb ire is aimed mainly at international bodies associated with Kosovo independence.