UN mission to protect Serbs is undermined by local thugs

RELATIONS BETWEEN the KLA and the UN administration in Kosovo are growing increasingly fractious as the UN attempts to exert its authority in the province. Attacks against the dwindling Serb population are escalating, forcing the United Nations Mission in Kosovo to insist that it, and not the Kosovo Liberation Army, the Albanian Mafia or "provisional governments" set up by rival politicians, is the unassailable authority in the province.

"We are in charge of administering this territory," says a UN spokeswoman, Nadia Younes, claiming that the UN has moved quickly to fill Kosovo's post-war power vacuum.

But the UN's assertion of control is undermined by criticism from its own ranks. At the end of a bloody week, which included the murder of two elderly Serbian women, Ron Redmond, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has finally said, loudly and publicly, something other officials have only whispered: a monkey, he argues, has already been made of the UN's mandate to preserve Kosovo's multi-ethnic complexion.

While Ms Younes insists that the battle to maintain multiculturalism is not lost, Mr Redmond claims that the failure of international peace- keepers to protect the Serb minority has already seen that particular dream bite the dust. He says that UNHCR views the situation with "increasing alarm" and estimates that there are now only 1,000 to 2,000 Serbs left in the capital, Pristina, compared with up to 30,000 who lived there before the war.

Only the most vulnerable now remain, he says, holed up in their homes, too terrified to go out. "They're elderly, they're disabled and a lot of them are isolated in their homes and apartments with little or no family support network. It is highly unlikely that these people were involved in persecuting Albanians. But that does not seem to matter to the thugs who are now terrorising them."

Intimidation follows a familiar pattern. First, a letter advising a Serb to leave Kosovo is slipped under the door. Twenty-four hours later, a few thugs pay a house call. Physical violence and even murder is then visited upon those who refuse to leave. Ironically, it is a recycling of the same tactics employed by Serbs against Albanians. As one international aid official puts it: "Serbs are not living here; they are hiding. The reality is that this is now an Albanian country".

No one in authority says that the KLA, or a faction within it, is orchestrating the campaign of violence. But there does now seem to be an attempt to curb the activities of the former rebels, and meet challenges to UN authority head on. It is a delicate business, for the UN does not want to push the KLA, widely regarded as heroes at home, into opposition.

Bernard Kouchner, the UN's senior administrator in Kosovo, is also offering the KLA a share of power in Kosovo's transitional council.

"The idea," says a UN insider, "is to focus the KLA on preparing for election rather than trying to operate their own provincial government."

If Mr Kouchner has his way elections may take place as early as next May. Kosovars, who are suspicious of the KLA, think that the move to a quick vote is wise. One local journalist, a disillusioned former rebel supporter, claims that some former rebels are intimidating their own people in a bid to undermine support for their rival, Ibrahim Rugova.

"This is not what we fought for, " says the journalist bitterly. While liberated Pristina is still partying - its cafes full, patriotic music blaring in the square - tensions are building, the journalist claims. "On the surface you can see little. It's all happening in the night."