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Kosovo’s Serb Christians Anxious Await Independence Under NATO’s Eyes

ICC Note

Deadlock over the fate of Kosovo has caused tension among Serbian orthodox Christians.

Saturday, 08 December 2007 Serbia (BosNewsLife) — Kosovo’s minority Serbs, many of them Orthodox Christians, anticipated more tensions Saturday, December 8, after international mediators said efforts to reach a compromise between the province’s independence seeking government and Serbia have failed.

“Neither party was willing to cede its position on the fundamental question of sovereignty over Kosovo,” the statement from the mediators of the ‘troika’, the European Union, the United States and Russia, said of four months of talks on the future status of Kosovo between the governments in Pristina, Kosovo, and Belgrade, Serbia.

Kosovo’s new leader, Hashim Thaci, a former Kosovo Albanian guerrilla leader, promised to make independence for the state his first priority. Serbia opposes independence, but has said it would be ready to accept autonomy for Kosovo within its borders.

Russia supports Serbia ’s position, but most Western leaders have said they will accept a declaration of independence for Kosovo, although they hope the ethnic Albanian politicians will wait till late January to give NATO and the European more time to prepare for it.

The NATO military alliance said Friday it will remain in Kosovo even if leaders of the Serbian province declare independence. The announcement at a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels came just days before a December 10 deadline for an end to internationally backed negotiations.

Keeping Strength

NATO spokesman James Appathurai also told reporters that the allies agreed to keep their KFOR peacekeeping force in Kosovo at its current strength of just over 16,000 troops. He also made clear that NATO will have more soldiers on standby, amid concerns that plans by ethnic Albanian leaders to declare the province independent from Serbia will spark new unrest in the Balkans.

“Allies agree that U.N. Security Council resolution 1244 provides a platform for the continuing presence of NATO forces in Kosovo,” said Appathurai. “Second that they commit to maintain the force levels of KFOR at the levels that we have them or to adjust them as necessary. That includes, if necessary, reinforcements.”

The agreement on the peacekeepers’ future role in Kosovo came after NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said it was important to ensure security for all ethnic groups in the troubled province. “NATO’s continued commitment to the security and stability of the region remains crucial,” he said. “And we will act resolutely against anyone who seeks to resort to violence. Regardless of the outcome of the status process, Kosovo will remain and has to remain a place where Kosovar Albanians, Serbs and others must be able live in peace together free from fear and intimidation.”

The peacekeepers have been in Kosovo since 1999 when NATO forced Serb troops to end a brutal crackdown on the independence seeking ethnic Albanian majority of the province.

Disputed Province

However the disputed province is dear to the Serbs who regard it as bastion of Serbian history and religion. But it is equally coveted by Albanians, Muslims who now hold the majority, observers say.

In Belgrade , officials have expressed concerns that a declaration of independence will lead to a new refugee crisis saying many of Kosovo’s 100,000 Serbs, including many Christians, may leave the region amid concerns of new violence.

In previous years many Serbian Orthodox Churches , monasteries and even cemeteries have been destroyed, often by angry ethnic Albanian mobs seeking revenge for years of persecution under late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Serbian Orthodox priests have often to travel under NATO escort to avoid attacks, church officials say.

Milorad Bobara, the Serbian government official who oversees this camp (part of a vast system designed to house 500,000 Serbs who have fled Bosnia , Croatia and Kosovo), has said that the government “has no idea how to handle another refugee flood.”