Bomb blasts new Serbian cathedral

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The Independent Online
THE NEW Serbian Orthodox cathedral in the centre of Pristina was damaged in a bomb blast yesterday, putting fresh and severe strain on Kosovo's fragile peace. The explosion occurred just hours after British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Pristina, urging peace and trust on all sides.

Serbian community leaders immediately blamed the Kosovo Liberation Army for the attack and alleged it was part of an organised campaign to wipe out Serbian cultural and religious presence in the province.

Bernard Kouchner, the United Nations administrator for Kosovo, also condemned in the most vigorous terms what he called a "cowardly" attack. He said: "I came here to express my opposition and to say that this state of permanent revenge has to stop."

The cathedral, not fully constructed, had become a symbol of Serbian ascendancy for some Kosovar Albanians. It was built with the support of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic on a site which had been previously earmarked for a fine arts centre for Pristina University. A large cross was put on the dome just before the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia began.

The blast in the early hours of the morning caused some structural damage to the cathedral but no casualties. Four out of six explosive charges placed at the site had detonated.

The attack came as Lieutenant General Sir Mike Jackson, the British commander of Nato's Kosovo Force, accused some Kosovar Albanians of behaving as violently as their former Serbian oppressors and taking advantage of Nato's presence to settle scores. There have been more than 200 murders, with most of the victims Serbians, including the massacre of 14 farmers.

A senior member of the Orthodox Church in Kosovo, Father Sava said that more than 30 Orthodox churches or monasteries had been damaged or destroyed since Yugoslav forces withdrew from Kosovo in June. He claimed: "At the moment Albanian extremists are organising a systematic campaign of destruction of Orthodox churches with the intention of blotting out all traces of Serbian existence in Kosovo."

Father Sava was one of the Serbian community leaders who met Mr Blair during his visit to Pristina on Saturday. The Prime Minister had assured them that Serbians who choose to remain in Kosovo will be fully protected.

Nato forces have been in continuous confrontations with the KLA since the liberation of the province and Serbian residential areas are being protected by KFOR (Kosovo Force). General Jackson said at the weekend: "Too many Albanians haven't realised we are trying to do something new and different here. Some Albanians have behaved in a very similar way to those who have just left."

Tensions in the province further arose after Russian troops under KFOR command detained the KLA's commander in chief Agim Ceku at a roadblock for allegedly failing to have proper identification papers.

Ibrahim Rugova, the moderate Kosovar leader who had been vilified by the KLA for his opposition to armed struggle against the Serbs, returned to Pristina last Friday and is being increasingly seen as an alternative to the KLA.