By Matthew Robinson

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KOSOVO POLJE, Serbia and Montenegro, Mar 13 (Reuters) This is arguably where it all began, the place where Slobodan Milosevic made his pitch to become the defender of Serbdom, telling the nation ''no one should beat you''.

In April 1987, Milosevic, the Communist Party leader sent to Kosovo by the president to calm tensions, faced an elderly Serb man railing at the injustices inflicted by his neighbours, members of the province's Albanian majority.

Stiff and smart, Milosevic responded in words that would haunt the next 13 years, telling the cheering Serbs no one had the right to touch them.

However, in 1999 the Serbs were indeed beaten in Kosovo, by a NATO air onslaught brought on by Milosevic's disregard of Western warnings not to repeat the outrages of the Bosnia war in his military response to a Kosovo Albanian guerrilla revolt.

Kosovo, with 1,000 years of Serbian religious and cultural history, is widely expected to gain independence from Serbia later this year.

Today, the cultural centre in Kosovo Polje, where Milosevic spoke, is abandoned to the elements, its drab yellow walls peeling, the balcony rail coated in rust.

'HUMANITARIAN WAR' As war raged in Bosnia and Croatia in the 1990s, Milosevic stripped away Kosovo's autonomous status, drove the Albanians underground and ultimately confronted a guerilla insurgency with a brutality that prompted NATO's first ''humanitarian'' war.

''Milosevic told them no one could touch the Serbs, no one could lift a finger to them,'' said Islam Bajrami, an ethnic Albanian wrapped in a thick coat against the rain. ''And you know what massacres he carried out here, what crimes he committed.'' The grainy images of that day mark the moment Milosevic, wagging a dismissive finger, launched his career based on the defence of the Serbs.

His legacy runs across Kosovo Polje like neon in Las Vegas.

Barbed wire encircles the school, which is divided between Serb and Albanian children and has an Albanian name in the morning, Serbian in the afternoon.

MORE REUTERS PV BS0948

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