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Divided city shows rocky road ahead

Serbs on one side of Mitrovica vow they'll never accept Kosovo's declaration of independence.

February 19, 2008|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

MITROVICA, KOSOVO — Thousands of Serbs rallied Monday in this tense, divided town and vowed never to let go of a region that they, like ethnic Albanians, consider their homeland.

For all the heated rhetoric unleashed as world powers slowly started recognizing an independent nation called Kosovo, it seemed unlikely that large-scale violence would erupt. More than 16,000 NATO troops patrol Kosovo, and Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, speaking in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, issued a statement Monday night calling on Serbs to restrain themselves.

Protesters here burned a picture of an American flag and charged an icicle-clad bridge that leads to the Albanian section of town, but stopped short of crossing it.

Instead, they chanted angry slogans, pumping their fists in the air and waving red-white-and-blue Serbian flags, and they sang traditional folk songs with refrains such as "My beloved country, Kosovo . . . "

"You can't just take part of someone's state," said Sasa Cirkovic, 18, a Serb student in expensive sunglasses. "A state cannot be created inside another state."

Just across the bridge, the picture was very different. Red Albanian flags emblazoned with a black eagle fluttered from shops, homes and mosques, and relatively calm residents soaked up what they considered to be a new, if not quite tangible, freedom.

"The thing is, the Serbs have to accept the reality, and reality has changed," said Mehmat Haxhani, 50, a boxing coach and elementary school teacher. "We are another country now."

United Nations officials who have administered Kosovo for almost a decade regard Mitrovica as a potential tinderbox. North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops and U.N. police were patrolling the town and were deployed at the bridge.

Mitrovica, which straddles the Ibar River, in many ways symbolizes the difficulties that lie ahead after Sunday's declaration of independence by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian government.

On the northern side of the river, abutting Serbia, live Serbs, enraged, sad and humiliated; to the south are confident ethnic Albanians feeling newly empowered. There is mistrust all around, and deep uncertainty over the future.

The plight of the roughly 100,000 Serbs who still live in Kosovo (a larger number were forced to flee) remains a major sticking point. Kosovo officials, under international pressure, are promising to protect Serbs and other minorities.

Hard-line Serb leaders in Mitrovica are saying they will secede from any breakaway Kosovo, in a sense creating a partition within a partition.

"Serbia must decide whether it is willing to use its army to defend Kosovo," Marko Jaksic, a Kosovo Serb leader, told the rally in Mitrovica. "All military force must be used to protect our brothers!"

"Kosovo is Serbian!" the crowd chanted. Signs read, "Russia, help!" There were men in business suits, women in full-length fur coats, parents carting their children and scores of youths.

"I remain here and will stay here," declared a 52-year-old Serbian woman who would give only her first name, Ana. "Kosovo will never be independent. We will reply to their violence with violence. Why should we be afraid?"

There have been scattered incidents of rock throwing and vandalism, and a hand grenade thrown at a U.N. building in Kosovo early Monday burned a U.N. vehicle. Police fought back hundreds of Bosnian Serb students attempting to march on U.S. diplomatic offices in the Bosnian Serb town of Banja Luka. As feared, Kosovo's independence is inspiring some Bosnian Serbs to demand their liberation from the multiethnic state of Bosnia.

Belgrade turned nasty Sunday night, hours after Kosovo's declaration, with attacks on Western embassies by rampaging gangs.

But on Monday, peaceful demonstrations were held in the Serbian capital and other parts of Serbia. Thousands of people crowded into Belgrade's Orthodox cathedral for a special prayer service for Kosovo Serbs. A handful of ethnic Albanian families living along one block on the Serbian side of Mitrovica had the moxie to raise Albanian flags Monday, and NATO patrols stood close by to ward off Serbian ire.

"Of course we feel safe -- we are in the independent Republic of Kosovo," said Emir Azemi, a skinny 21-year-old technology student. "We waited 500, 600 years for this. If they don't want to live with us, that's their problem. The game is over."

Across the bridge, the thoughts of ethnic Albanians turned to what independence would mean. Haxhani, the boxing coach, said he hoped that finally Kosovo would be able to field a boxing team in international matches, perhaps even the upcoming Olympics. Kosovo boxers, as part of the old Yugoslav team, were well known for their prowess.

"Our leadership is good, but they don't have a magic wand for changing everything immediately," he said, smoking cigarettes over small cups of coffee. "It may take four or five years for the economy to get on its feet."

His buddy Berat Veliu, 26, a technician in a hospital emergency room, said he hoped Kosovo's new full-state relationship with other countries would make it easier for him to finish graduate studies in Austria. He would do so, he said, and then, unlike many Kosovo Albanians, return to Kosovo to work.

"Businessmen have been very afraid to invest here, but now they don't have to be afraid," he said. "Starting from now, major businesses can invest and employment can grow."

That still seems remote in a region where scrap metal is the top export and nearly half the able-bodied population is unemployed. But it's the dream. As for clashes with the Serbs, it depends on what political leaders decide and whether Serbs can accept Kosovo's new status, Veliu said.

"They are trying to provoke," he said, "but we will not bite."

Special correspondent Zoran Cirjakovic in Belgrade contributed to this report.

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