Show of strength from Kosovo Serbs opposed to independence

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The Independent Online

Several thousand Serbs in the Kosovan town of Mitrovica have demonstrated against the likelihood that the province will declare independence from Serbia.

The rally was scheduled on the eve of a United Nations Security Council debate on the future of Kosovo, which is expected to be heated following the failure of efforts to secure a negotiated settlement. The demonstrators waved banners and flags while several hundred Serbs, shouting "Go Home", filed past the offices of the small European Union team that is preparing to establish a mission of 1,800 police officers and administrators once the Albanian majority goes ahead with the expected declaration of independence early next year.

Serbian officials, who controversially opened a government office in Mitrovica last week, organised the rally under the slogan: "No to the illegal EU mission without a UN Security Council resolution, no to an independent Kosovo, and a big yes to Kosovo remaining a part of Serbia with Serbs as fully fledged Serbian citizens."

The Serbian Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, has flown to New York for today's closed-door debate at which the Russian delegation is expected to back Serbia's call for further negotiations. Kosovo's President, Fatmir Sejdiu, will also attend. It will be the first time that the Kosovars sit at the Security Council table, although no decisions are expected as a result of the consultations today.

The Prime Minister-elect of the UN-administered province, Hashim Thaci, said at the weekend that a declaration of independence was "a matter of weeks" away.

The divided town of Mitrovica could be a flashpoint for violence if such a declaration is made in 2004, 14 people died in ethnic violence there. The United States and almost all of the EU want to move ahead with an internationally supervised plan without UN approval. But this is fiercely opposed by Serbia and its backer, Russia. A total of 16,000 Nato troops are deployed in the province to counter unrest, and the governments of Serbia and Kosovo have made a solemn pledge to avoid violence.

"The EU cannot come here to implement the plan of that Finn, which has already been rejected by the UN Security Council," Marko Jaksic, a hardline Kosovo Serb leader, told the crowd, referring to the UN envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, whose plan for internationally supervised Kosovo independence was blocked in July by Russia.

Mr Jaksic stood on a platform on which a huge banner proclaimed: "Kosovo Soul of Serbia. SOS: Save our Soul." The image of Russia's Vladimir Putin was pinned at the top.

A black joke has been circulating in diplomatic circles following the failure of four months of negotiations between the Kosovo and Serb leadership negotiated by a "troika" of diplomats from Germany, the US and Russia. It concludes with a plane crash after which the surviving passengers remark: "We can't be more than 500 yards from where we crashed the last time."

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