Serbs warn of Kosovo clash

Belgrade's leader foresees outbreaks of violence if an independence declaration is rushed through

Serbia's president Boris Tadic has made a last-ditch appeal to world leaders to retreat from a carefully orchestrated plan to recognise the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, now widely expected to take place at the end of this week.

Tadic, regarded as a moderate, warned that the expected recognition next Sunday by up to 100 countries, led by the United States, was 'cutting corners' in the middle of difficult negotiations and counselled that it threatened to reactivate old conflicts in the region and trigger new ones. He said that the only way to avoid this was to achieve a negotiated resolution supported by all parties and backed by the UN Security Council.

Instead, what seems certain is that Kosovo will declare independence unilaterally. In reply, dozens of states will recognise it in the following hours, orchestrated behind the scenes by the US to prevent Russia - Serbia's most powerful backer - going to the Security Council to block the move. Opponents of Kosovo's independence will be presented with a fait accompli.

'The alternative is a dangerous leap into the dark unknown in a time of great global turbulence,' Tadic said at a conference in Germany on Friday. 'The precedent that would be established should Serbia be partitioned against its will - which is what the imposed independence of Kosovo is, in truth - could in turn result in the escalation of many existing conflicts, the reactivation of a number of frozen conflicts and the instigation of how many new conflicts.'

His comments came as Serbia's Minister for Kosovo suggested strongly yesterday that Belgrade would seek to keep control over the Serb-populated areas in the province after its ethnic Albanian leadership declares independence. Slobodan Samardzic said in a statement that 'all should be done for the Serbs to remain on their land and live safely as citizens of Serbia'.

Critics of the plan to declare independence, which follows the failure of Serbia and the Kosovo-Albania leaders to negotiate terms for separation, have already warned of the risk that Kosovo's Serbian population, concentrated in northern Mitrovica, would respond by declaring their own independence, setting the stage for violent confrontation.

The renewed Serbian warning comes as Kosovo's leaders struggled to calm rising 'independence fever', fearful that wild celebrations from the ethnic Albanian majority could spark violent clashes with scared and furious Serbs.

Kosovo is expected to proclaim itself the world's newest state next Sunday or Monday, allowing European Union foreign ministers meeting on Monday to give the green light to a 2,000-strong mission to oversee the running of the ethnically divided region.

While Washington and most EU members will quickly welcome independent Kosovo into the world, Tadic's grim predictions of spiralling instability in the Balkans, still scarred by a bloody decade that ended with Nato bombing Serb troops out of Kosovo in 1999, will gain credence if the region's long-awaited independence celebrations give way to ethnic violence.

Kosovo's parliament is expected to meet next weekend and Hashim Thaci, the former separatist rebel who is now Kosovo's Prime Minister, or President Fatmir Sejdiu is likely to announce independence on Sunday or Monday morning, preventing Russia from immediately responding through the Security Council, six hours behind in New York.

By the time Russia can muster an emergency meeting of the council, the US and major EU nations will have drawn its diplomatic sting by recognising the sovereignty of Kosovo's two million citizens. 'We have the confirmation from some 100 states which say they are ready to recognise Kosovo's independence immediately after we declare it,' Thaci insisted last week after Serbia said that it expected a declaration on 17 February.

The announcement will prompt a huge public outpouring of joy and relief from Kosovo's 1.9 million Albanians, who lost 10,000 people in Slobodan Milosevic's brutal 1998-99 crackdown on separatist rebels and have endured a limbo-like existence ever since, unwilling to be ruled by Belgrade but prevented from running their own affairs.

Kosovo's fledgling symphony orchestra is tuning up for a gala concert whose date is still unknown, while some see a heavy hint in plans to open an independence exhibition next Sunday in Pristina, the shabby capital city that is being spruced up for a party and firework display that will cost at least €1m (£750,000).

For the region's 100,000 Serbs, however, independence day will be one of fear and uncertainty. Some are expected to abandon their isolated enclaves and head north towards Serbia itself - an exodus that could trigger violence in a Kosovo still awash with weapons and revelling in triumphant pride at its final freedom from Belgrade. 'The date of decision for declaration of independence of Kosovo [should] really be a day of dignified celebrations,' Thaci said.

Kosovo's 17,000-strong Nato peacekeeping force, along with thousands more UN and local police, are being deployed prominently ahead of a declaration to neutralise the threat of clashes and to deter armed paramilitary groups on both sides from attacking the opposing community.

But in Kosovo's superheated atmosphere, even increased security measures only exacerbate Serb feelings of insecurity. 'In all Serb communities here there is fear and concern and negative expectations,' said Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic.

'The international police force is reinforcing, but that makes Serbs nervous. It reminds them of the bad times,' he said, referring to ethnic riots in 2004 and reprisal attacks by Albanian gangs that drove thousands of Serbs and Roma from Kosovo in 1999.


Daniel McLaughlin and Peter Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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