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Kosovo rumbles as 19 Albanians go on trial: Ancient resentments at past injustice are bubbling up anew in a poor and overpopulated Balkan backwater, writes Marcus Tanner in Pristina

NINETEEN Kosovo Albanians charged with the illegal possession of weapons went on trial in the western city of Pec yesterday, following an unprecedented spate of shoot-outs between Albanians and the police. The trial heightened fears that the ethnically polarised Serbian province could explode into Yugoslavia's next battlefront.

More than 1,000 Serbian troops flew into Pristina airport in military aircraft at the weekend in a reflection of official nervousness. 'This could easily develop into war,' predicted Adem Demaqi, the father-figure of Kosovo's Albanian nationalists. 'It could be even bloodier and more tragic than the war in Bosnia.'

Tension, broken by bursts of violence, has been the norm in Kosovo for decades. In Pristina, Albanians and Serbs endure a kind of voluntary apartheid, keeping strictly to separate shops, cafes and sections of town. The impasse between the Serb authorities and the restive, pro-independence Albanians has brought economic and political life to a halt.

In this poor and overpopulated backwater, where half the 2 million Albanians are under 18, there are scant signs that the reformist plans of Milan Panic, the Yugoslav Prime Minister, will bear fruit. A spiral of violence and police repression has recently gathered pace. In the village of Glogovac, a Serb policeman was shot dead and two Albanians wounded in a shoot-out. In Decani, near the Albanian border, a schoolteacher died under police interrogation. A young Albanian woman was shot dead in her home after it was surrounded by police.

The cycle of repression and revolt is an ancient one. The trial of the 19 Albanians can only make it worse. At a time when local Albanian political leaders face harassment, and are hauled in for police interrogation, the trial lacks credibility among Albanians. Moves are afoot to close Zeri, the only permitted Albanian political weekly in Kosovo. 'Mr Panic said no more Albanians will be killed when he came to power and instead seven more Albanians have been killed,' said Muhamet Hamiti, one of the new breed of angry young activists. 'Panic has done nothing about Kosovo. His promises to reopen schools for Albanians meant nothing either. You can see peace on the surface, but revolt is imminent.'

An estimated 100,000 Albanians were sacked from jobs in state-run firms in the past two years, and Albanians now fear losing their land to Serbian refugees from Bosnia and Croatia. The authorities have started settling 700 Serbian refugee families in an Albanian community, and in Decani.

Plans to expel Albanians from Kosovo date from the Serbian capture of the province from Turkey in 1912. An ambitious government scheme of mass expulsion drawn up in 1937 collapsed only during the Second World War when Albanians briefly enjoyed the whiphand under an Italian fascist protectorate.

'A war in Kosovo depends on the outcome of the power struggle in Belgrade, and whether Mr Milosevic uses Kosovo as his last card,' predicted Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of Kosovo Albanians elected in an underground ballot last year. He said the international community should warn Serbia 'not to open up another front'.

The Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) have heeded pleas from Kosovo Albanians, and from Greeks terrified of a possible influx of refugees, by sending a permanent mission to the province. Whether European interference will help this grumbling appendix in the Balkans is doubtful. In Kosovo, two nations confront each other with rival testimonies and ambitions.

The first Serbian state rose and fell in Kosovo in the Middle Ages. Nineteenth-century Serbs likened the reconquest of Kosovo to the Jewish quest for Jerusalem. But the first Albanian national movement in the 19th century began in Kosovo as well. Many Kosovo Albanians imagine Pristina - not Tirana - as the future seat of a united Albania. It looks like a stalemate. But only one side - the Serbs - has guns.