Kosovo's unity under threat; world powers reconsider plans

MITROVICA, Kosovo — One month after Kosovo declared independence, the unity of the former Serbian province is under serious threat as its Serb minority, actively backed by Serbia, tests how far the international community will go to ensure its current borders.

Heavily armed Serb protesters fought international forces here Monday in a clash that left a Ukrainian police officer dead and a French NATO soldier critically injured. Seven other French troops and dozens of UN policemen were seriously hurt, some requiring amputations from the blasts of at least 30 grenades.

The level of violence, on the one-month anniversary of Kosovo's independence, and the direct involvement of the government in Belgrade shocked the international community. The major powers are now re-evaluating plans to transition power to the new Kosovo government, Western and UN officials said.

Among the open questions: Who will enforce Kosovo's borders with Serbia and by what means? Who will secure the mainly ethnic Serb zone north of the Ibar River in Mitrovica, up to the border with Serbia? And will Serbs be allowed to turn what is already a "soft" partition into a permanent division in Kosovo?

Monday's incident began about 5:30 a.m., when United Nations police tried to retake a courthouse that Serbian protesters had seized days earlier. They arrested more than 50 people inside, among them Serbian Interior Ministry officials — evidence, the UN says, that Belgrade played a direct role in orchestrating the violence.

The UN police, mainly from the Ukraine and Poland, came under attack by about 300 well-armed protesters. A convoy carrying some of the arrested was surrounded, its occupants freed.

Overwhelmed, the UN called in French NATO troops, who battled for hours to secure control of the courthouse. About 16,000 NATO troops are stationed in Kosovo, including troops from the United States.

"This was a real escalation of the violence," said Major Etienne du Fayet, a spokesman for NATO troops in Mitrovica.

Serbs remain defiant. "The ones who have illegally declared the independence of Kosovo, they are the ones who have caused the problem," says Dragan Velic, president of the Serbian National Council and a community leader in the Serbian enclave of Gracanica. "It's obvious after one month that this solution (independence) will not work."

Kosovo's majority population is ethnically Albanian. About 100,000 Serbs, of a total population of around 2 million, live in Kosovo, most north of the Ibar River or in isolated enclaves protected by NATO troops.

The Mitrovica incident is only one reason the international community is now reviewing its transition plans for Kosovo.

Border posts between Kosovo and Serbia, which Serb protesters burned in the days after independence, are now under NATO control but effectively non-operational. International offices in the northern, Serb-dominated part of the country have been shut since independence. And hundreds of Serb policemen, part of the Kosovo Police Service, which was one of the few integrated institutions here, have walked off their jobs, saying they refuse to work for an independent Kosovo.

Continued international divisions over Kosovo's declaration of independence have also stalled transition plans, raising questions about how the new state will be administered. Under a UN blueprint for Kosovo's independence, the UN mission — which has administered Kosovo since 1999 — was supposed to withdraw 120 days after independence. NATO would remain to ensure security and protect minorities and a new European Union mission would provide international supervision for the fledgling government.

But with Russia still blocking Security Council approval of Kosovo's independence, the UN has not set a date for its withdrawal. In the wake of this week's violence, and Serb insistence on accepting only international institutions, it may not pull out completely.

Alexander Ivanko, a spokesman for the UN mission in Kosovo, known as UNMIK, says the UN may retain a "residual presence."

UN and local police pulled out of the north of this divided city following Monday's incident, and NATO troops took over, guarding internationally owned buildings — including the courthouse — from behind barbed wire and the carcasses of burned UN vehicles. Police returned to the north on Wednesday, but civilian offices, such as the court, have not reopened.

The campaign to retake the courthouse was an unusually strong action by the international community in Kosovo, which has generally shied away from confrontation with the Serb minority in the north, allowing them to essentially live as part of Serbia.

But independence has changed the dynamic. Quietly, Serbs in the north say they would accept partition and Serbian government officials have hinted that that is their plan. But the Kosovo government and international community say that is not an option.

"I think the international community has accepted soft partition since day one," says Ivanko. "Hard partition is where they draw the line."

More than 30 countries have recognized Kosovo, including, in recent days, three of its neighbors: Croatia, Hungary and Bulgaria. On Thursday, President Bush also approved military assistance and weapons sales to Kosovo.

But Serbia, which faces early elections in May due in part to political differences over Kosovo, continues to fight a fierce diplomatic campaign against Kosovo's recognition. It says Kosovo's independence violates international law and sets a dangerous precedent.

Itano is a McClatchy special correspondent.

Related stories from McClatchy DC