Defiant Serbs vow to keep Kosovo

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TENS of thousands of Serbs demonstrated yesterday in Pristina, capital of the province of Kosovo, as Albanian separatist feelings continues to grow.

"We will give up our lives - but we will never give up Kosovo," chanted the protesters, who waved Serb flags, sang national songs, and showed the three-fingered Serb salute.

Albanians, who form a 90 per cent majority in the Serb ruled province, feel they are the victims. Under the rule of Slobodan Milosevic they have been stripped of many of the rights that they previously enjoyed.

Police brutality has become frequent. Dozens of Albanians, including women and children, were killed recently by Serb forces in massacres in the Drenica region, west of Kosovo's capital, Pristina.

But the Serbs feel themselves a beleaguered minority and fear that Kosovo - "the heart of Serbia", as many slogans yesterday described it - may be slipping away. The Serbs say they are ready to fight to stop that happening.

One target of the protesters' anger was a concession by the Serb authorities in Pristina, which yesterday agreed to let ethnic Albanian students resume university places.

In recent years the Albanians have, in effect, been banned from higher education. Many Albanians feel that the new agreement does not go far enough. But Serbs fear that it is the thin end of the wedge, and could be the first of many Serb retreats.

Albanians mostly stayed off the streets of Pristina, fearing violence. In the event, the march passed off almost entirely peacefully.

Albanians and Serbs alike share the deception - only partly justified by reality - that the world is ready to come to the Albanians' aid. Slogans yesterday criticised the American "support for terrorism", a reference to the fact that Robert Gelbard, the United States' special envoy to the Balkans, has had sympathetic talks with the main Albanian leader, Ibrahim Rugova, and because Western politicians have sharply criticised the recent Serb crackdown.

There was a large turn-out for unofficial elections the Albanians held in Kosovo on Sunday, which returned Mr Rugova as president of the unrecognised republic of Kosovo. Although Serbia declared the elections were illegal, the authorities did not prevent them from taking place.