Bitterness and tragedy strike again in the cradle of the Serbian state

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As thousands of Serbs gathered at Vracar Hill in Belgrade - where the relics of the patron saint of Serbia were burnt by Serbia's medieval Ottoman invaders - to hear church leaders say prayers for Kosovo, there was sense of history, and of tragedy, repeating itself.

Long inhabited by Albanians, Kosovo, "the cradle of the Serbian state", continues to exercise the Serb imagination like no other place, far more than the Serb areas of Croatia and Bosnia, for example.

Slobodan Milosevic rose to power on the "Kosovo issue", by accusing his predecessors of having failed to defend Kosovo's 10 per cent Serb minority from its Albanian majority.

At the height of his power, Milosevic staged a massive parade of Serbian nationalism in 1989 to mark the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, near Pristina, which at least one million Serbs attended.

In reality, Serbs have not been a majority race in Kosovo since the late 17th century, when huge numbers of Serbs fled the Turkish army to find sanctuary in Austrian-ruled Vojvodina, north of Belgrade.

But after the Serbian army recaptured the area from the Ottoman empire in 1912 - much to the fury of the local Albanian majority - Belgrade launched a campaign to "re-Serbianise" the area, which is one of the causes of the bitterness so evident today. Land in Kosovo was divided among Serbian colonists from the north and the Albanians were seen as a despised minority - detested for their Muslim religion and treated as racial inferiors to the Serbs.

After the Second World War, Yugoslavia's new communist leader, Josip Tito, a Croat, resolved to break this cycle of hatred. Under his rule, money was poured into Kosovo and the Albanians were encouraged to join the police and state.

The fragile peace held until Tito's death in 1980 and collapsed soon after, as Serb nationalism again asserted the old thesis about Kosovo as "holy land" and Albanians as illegal interlopers who needed to be kicked out or disciplined.

The project collapsed with Serbia's forced withdrawal from the province in 1999, after hundreds of thousands of Albanians had been driven out to neighbouring Albania and Macedonia by Milosevic's army. Since then, it has been the 100,000 or so Serbs who have remained in Kosovo who have been on the receiving end of violence.

In spite of this reversal, however, Serb politicians continue to proclaim that the province will one day be incorporated again into Serbia, albeit with a measure of autonomy for the Albanians. The Albanians, however, want total independence. The UN - aiming to find a solution acceptable to both sides - remains caught in the middle.