Serbs dismiss Albanian talk of reconciliation

After a night of Albanian celebrations, Serbs made their feelings about Kosovo's self-declared independence known yesterday with co-ordinated protests in Serbian enclaves across the new-born state.

The biggest was in the divided city of Mitrovica, where the two communities face each other across the Ibar river. Singing nationalistic songs, 7,000 Serbs marched down to the bridge on the north side. The protests passed peacefully.

On Sunday in Pristina, the Kosovan Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, underlined his nation's commitment to confronting "the painful legacy of the recent past in a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness". He is committed to implementing a plan by the UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari which contains provisions for protecting the "culture, language, education and symbols" of the minority communities.

But the Serbs are dubious. Pristina was home to hundreds of thousands of them until the Nato bombing campaign of 1999; today there are practically none. The Serbs of Mitrovica are also not buying the talk of reconciliation.

"A plan on paper is one thing," said a Serb in a coffee shop near the bridge, "but what happens on the ground is something else. The worst thing is not violence like that of 2004, but quiet pressure on jobs, education, health care, social policy."

Neboosa Jovic, the chairman for Mitrovica North on the Serbian National Council, said he was pleased with the peaceful protest: "From anger and fear to aggression is a single step, but we didn't take that step." He predicted that Kosovo's independence will never be accepted by the UN Security Council because it is "illegal". He also raised the bogey of a "green line" of new Muslim-majority states like Kosovo and Bosnia, "which will become a white al-Qa'ida in the heart of Europe".

The Serbs of North Mitrovica will not readily forget the Albanian ethnic cleansing that followed the Nato bombing campaign, because many of its victims are still living among them.

Gorica, 42, originally from the southern Kosovo town of Vucitru, now runs a fruit and vegetable stall in North Mitrovica. "After the bombing campaign, KFOR arrived in our village and the Albanians came behind them, destroying everything," she said. "There were 100 Serbian homes and they were all looted and destroyed. That land was never Albanian property, but we can't even visit our ancestral graves now because the gravestones have been destroyed."

The Ahtisaari plan guarantees the right of displaced people to return, but Gorica is sceptical. "They can build houses for us, but without security, how could we return?"

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