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Kosovo: Serbs in north say NO to Pristina

KOSOVO: Leaders of Kosovo's beleaguered Serb community have severed ties with its ethnic-Albanian government, amid international fears they will demand the division of the province if it is granted independence. Serbs living in a strip of northern Kosovo adjoining Serbia proper withdrew a threat to cut contact with the region's United Nations administration, but demanded more protection after attacks they blame on ethnic-Albanian gangs.

"The boycott applies to the Kosovo interim institutions," said local Serb leader Marko Jaksic, explaining that all financial transactions between the northern municipalities and the central government would stop. "This is our autonomous decision, a result of a disastrous security situation over the past seven years," he added, referring to how Nato bombing forced Serb troops from Kosovo.

At the end of the Kosovo war, some 200,000 Serbs and other minorities streamed out of Kosovo, fearing reprisals from the independence-seeking ethnic Albanian majority. Current UN-brokered talks are expected to lead to some kind of independence for the province, but most Serbs reject that possibility for a region they consider the cradle of their culture.

The UN has drawn up plans for handling another Serb exodus in the event of Kosovo's independence, while Nato intends to reopen a base in the province's north to improve security. Recent attacks there killed one Serb and badly injured two others, but UN police insist they were not racially motivated. Mr Jaksic suggested local Serbs might create vigilante groups to guard their villages, or appeal to Belgrade to send hundreds of police officers to protect them.

Head of the UN mission Soren Jessen-Petersen said he was not aware of any concrete action being taken by Kosovo's Serbs or Belgrade, but said he was looking at how to "enhance security measures and reassure the Serbs that everything is being done". Violence has increased calls among local Serbs for northern Kosovo to join Serbia, an option the UN is reluctant to countenance.

"Certainly, north Kosovo is becoming one of the biggest challenges of the status process talks," said Alex Anderson, head of the Pristina office of the International Crisis Group think tank. "I think there is an awful lot of work on the ground to make good the insistence that there will be no partition of Kosovo."

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