Serbs try to claim a piece of Kosovo

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

Srdjan Ilic/AP
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.
Rich Clabaugh

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.

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.

"We are urging calm and to not overreact," said a well-placed EU official in Pristina contacted by phone. "We don't need to fan the flames. But we are being challenged by the difference between what we hope to see [in Mitrovica], and what we are seeing." EU foreign affairs chief Javier Solana was in Kosovo, which is said to be Europe's No. 1 security problem, for only a few hours Tuesday. He did not go to Mitrovica.

Kosovo seeks West's support in Mitrovica

The events appear to challenge what many call a fiction, long maintained by the international community and Kosovar elites: that Mitrovica, a haven of Serb paramilitary and patriots, but deeply desired by Albanians, can easily remain in a new state.

"The reality is that the north is lost to Kosovo, just as Kosovo is lost to Serbia," argues former US diplomat James Hooper, of the International Law and Public Policy Group. "US and European peace facilitators have treated northern Mitrovica and the area north of the Ibar River as a de facto part of Serbia since the NATO war ended in 1999, all the while piously proclaiming the need to maintain Kosovo's territorial integrity."

The patch of north Kosovo around Mitrovica has for years been de facto controlled by Serbs, who run a parallel structure of police and administration. Serb groups are planning to elect a parliament, they say.

The Kosovar Albanians resolutely deny this mineral-rich territory to Serbs. Western diplomats have told the Kosovar government "over and over," according to one Belgrade-based diplomat, that a nonviolent return of Mitrovica is unrealistic.

Skender Hyseni, a cabinet minister in Pristina, told the Monitor last week regarding Mitrovica that "some issues will take time to resolve. We will continue to be patient. It will be easier to deal with the Serb community later."

He added that US officials "have not told us" that Mitrovica is lost, "and I hope they will never tell us that Mitrovica is not part of Kosovo. That would set a dangerous example ... borders of constitutional units can't change."

Torched checkpoints along Serb border

As the Serbs began attacking and unofficially patrolling the Mitrovica borders this week, a 14-vehicle strong contingent of Polish UN riot police and about one dozen French peacekeepers with NATO's Kosovo mission sat two miles south of the torched Jarinje border crossing to Serbia, waiting for orders. They were hemmed in by Serb mobs to the north and south.

A senior UN security official later confirmed that the car and truck convoys from Serbia contained "dozens" of former or current employees of the Serbian interior ministry.

French KFOR troops in one armored personnel carrier on the scene, witnessed by the Monitor, did not stop or search a single vehicle, and in fact retreated south just before the final wave of vehicles passed through the gravel pile. Other French KFOR troops toward Mitrovica could not keep a crowd from massing near a road block the soldiers were trying to build with a bulldozer, though a French soldier fired a warning shot into the air.

In Pristina the atmosphere remains celebratory, with Prime Minister Hashim Thaci playing down the incidents in the north.

"Everything is under the control of the NATO authorities, Kosovo police, and the United Nations, and no isolated incident will undermine Kosovo's independence celebrations," he told a press conference with Mr. Solana. Solana added, "KFOR is here and KFOR has used its responsibility, its obligations, already today."

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