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Serbs warn of partition if Kosovo wins statehood

Written by: Staff

ZVECAN, Serbia and Montenegro, Mar 29 (Reuters) Serbs in northern Kosovo warned the United Nations today the province would split in two if the Albanian majority clinches independence in talks this year.

''Serbs are not in favour of partition but it will come to that if the international community accepts the Albanian ultimatum and Kosovo becomes independent,'' Serb mayor Slavisa Ristic told reporters after meeting U.N. envoy Albert Rohan in the northern town of Zvecan.

Rohan is the Austrian deputy to Martti Ahtisaari, who is leading negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo Albanians in Vienna on the fate of the disputed province, run by the United Nations since the 1998-99 war.

The major powers setting international policy on Kosovo have ruled out partition, but as the West makes increasingly clear its preference for independence, the 100,000 remaining Serbs are pushing to distance themselves as far as possible from the Albanian-dominated authorities in the capital Pristina.

''No one can force us to accept institutions in Pristina that are unfriendly towards the Serb people,'' said Ristic, mayor of Zubin Potok, one of three Serb-dominated municipalities in the north bordering Serbia proper.

Asked if the north could win some form of autonomy in the future, Rohan replied: ''No''.

Serbia lost control of Kosovo in 1999, when NATO bombed to drive out Serb forces accused of atrocities against ethnic Albanian civilians in a 2-year war with separatist guerrillas. The United Nations took control, but about half the Serb population fled a wave of revenge attacks.

Seven years later, Serbs and Albanians remain divided, watched over by 17,500 NATO-led peacekeepers.

Hours before Rohan's visit, U.N. police closed the bridge in the nearby town of Mitrovica after a group of Albanians on Tuesday made a rare foray across the river into the Serb-dominated north and stabbed a Serb man.

Of the Serbs who stayed after the war, those in the north enjoy a natural land link to central Serbia. The rest live in scattered enclaves, targeted by sporadic violence.

Serbia wants the creation of a Serb entity, if possible within an autonomous Kosovo.

But partition is a taboo concept among Western powers, with the threat of forced population movements or a repeat of the dysfunctional ethnic carve-up seen in Bosnia.

In negotiations which resume on April 3, Ahtisaari is pushing the Albanians to give Serbs enough local powers for a viable future in an independent Kosovo, stopping short of autonomy or partition.

Reuters SY DB2122

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