Burning churches, ruined homes and ethnic hatred. Are the Balkans set to explode again?

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The Independent Online

Nato rushed 1,000 extra troops to Kosovo last night - 750 of them British - and Germany announced it will send 600 additional troops amid fears that the Balkans were again sliding towards a conflagration that could suck in neighbouring countries.

Nato rushed 1,000 extra troops to Kosovo last night - 750 of them British - and Germany announced it will send 600 additional troops amid fears that the Balkans were again sliding towards a conflagration that could suck in neighbouring countries.

With at least 23 dead in two days of ethnic rioting that have pitted the two million Albanians against the small Serb minority, and with dozens of churches and houses reduced to smoking ruins, Western efforts to impose peace appeared about to unravel.

Last night Albanians were again fighting their Serb neighbours in Lipljan, in eastern Kosovo, and the worst violence to afflict the province since the Serb pull-out in 1999 seemed set to continue into a third day.

But in a new and more worrying development, Albanian rioters were also attacking Finnish peace-keepers patrolling the small Serbian enclave, hurling stones and Molotov cocktails at the men they until recently thought of as their protectors.

The large-scale deployment of international peace-keepers quelled rioting in the northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica, scene of the worst violence on Wednesday, when Serbs and Albanians traded gunfire across the river Ibar, claiming at least six lives. But yesterday, fresh arson attacks on other isolated Serb enclaves raised the nightmare scenario of Western peace-keepers being stretched beyond their capacity, trying to dampen down brush fires in dozens of areas at once.

Plumes of smoke rising from the small town of Obilic, six miles from Pristina, revealed a glimpse of the problems facing peace-keepers. No roadblocks stopped our car - from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting - as we drove towards Obilic and entered the Serb enclave. There we encountered a 100-strong gang of sullen, trainer-clad youths, bolstered by ragged gangs of children, all busily stoning homes, lighting fires and looting goods.

Most of the houses were empty, the terrified Serbs having fled hours before in anticipation of the wave of hatred that was about to break over their small community. But the crowd had surrounded one house that was still occupied. There was an atmosphere of sinister jubilation as the jeering crowd reluctantly parted to allow US peace-keepers to enter and escort a terrified man from the smoke-filled interior to a tank in which he was driven away.

The grim scene in Obilic was a portrait in miniature of the violence that has racked Kosovo for two days, as Albanians turned simultaneously on several Serb enclaves, in what may have started as a spontaneous protest but which has assumed the hallmarks of an organised campaign. As the extra S-For troops were rushed from Bosnia to beef up Kosovo's visibly disorientated 17,000 peace-keepers, there were signs that their arrival might calm the fury of the Albanian gangs.

The lawlessness engulfing Kosovo has given an opportunity for shadowy extremists to renew the score-settling that has plagued the territory for centuries. What might have started off as an isolated burst of anger in Mitrovica over the still unexplained drowning of two Albanian children now appears to be something more planned. "We have had similar attacks to these in Kosovo before," said a UN spokesman, Derek Chappell. "But the fact that these attacks took place at the same time all over Kosovo does make me think they were orchestrated by the same extreme groups."

Lt-Colonel James Moran, a K-For spokesman, was more explicit. "There was a lot more organisation today than we saw yesterday," he said. "People had organised buses to take protesters to different areas. We turned several around." Whoever was behind that agenda has certainly succeeded in nullifying the UN's attempts to build bridges between Serbs and Albanians over the past four years.

The scale of the rage shown by the crowds caught local Albanian politicians and commentators off guard as well. They were just as unprepared as the UN. "In 24 hours Kosovo was transferred from normality to a state close to anarchy," said Veton Surroi, a veteran liberal activist and editor of the newspaper Koha Ditore.

But few of the mainstream politicians went much further than issuing vague appeals for calm - which the rioters simply ignored. Even the remonstrations of Albanians in the streets had no effect on the rioters. "Don't worry, we are not going to burn your house," one group of thugs in Obilic shouted at an elderly Albanian man who denounced what they were up to.

The bitterness has built up over months. Increasingly fearful that the international community will force Kosovo to remain in Serbia, the rhetoric of Albanian leaders over eight months has taken on an increasingly strident anti-UN tone.

The question is now what, if anything, can be done to restore even the bare bones of trust on either side. Little can be expected from Serbia, now entering a presidential election in which the ultra-nationalist Radical Party candidate is the odds-on favourite to win. Nor are even the moderate Albanian leaders in Kosovo certain of what will come next. "A policy died yesterday in Kosovo and it took human lives in the most tragic way," said Mr Surroi.

The funerals - both Serb and Albanian - have not even begun, but what is certain is that at numerous gravesides, calls for revenge will again be heard.