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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 March, 2004, 10:46 GMT
Fearful Serbs hope for peace

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News correspondent in Mitrovica

Serbian church being burned in Mitrovica
Religious symbols are bearing the brunt of the violence
The Orthodox monk is a model of composure. His long black beard, black habit and gentle nervous smile somehow out of place in this tense, industrial town.

Father German, abbot of the Monastery of the Archangel, near Prizren, was in Mitrovica by chance when the violence spread across Kosovo.

He could only listen in dismay to the news that his monastery, built in 1352, had been destroyed on Tuesday night and his fellow monks evacuated by German K-For troops.

Now he waits quietly in the hope of a K-For escort back to Prizren to rejoin his brothers.

He is adamant that the Serbs and the Serbian Orthodox Church will not leave Kosovo.

He does not blame all Albanians for the latest violence, only those he called the extremists.

And he blames the international community for not tackling those radical elements in the Albanian community long ago.

Influencing debate

"This is worse than 1999," he says - the year Nato bombed Kosovo and the rest of Serbia and forced Serb forces to withdraw from Kosovo.

He says 126 churches and monasteries in Kosovo have been damaged or destroyed in the five years since, and 22 more in the last three days alone.

The other Serbs in Mitrovica are more easily recognisable than Father German.

Nebojsa, a lawyer sitting in the offices of the Serbian National Council, close to the heavily guarded bridge in the town, is one example.

"Some of us have guns," he admits when pressed on the issue. "We will defend ourselves like any other people would."

But he hopes it will not come to that, and the international reinforcements flooding into Kosovo will re-impose order.

In Serbia there is already much debate about how this latest upsurge of violence, in which Serbs are clearly the main victims, will influence debate on the future status of Kosovo.

Some analysts believe the violence could accelerate Kosovo's independence from Serbia.

Widespread impatience

But Serbs who have long felt that Belgrade has done too little to champion Serb rights in the province, are basking in the new importance of the Kosovo issue and clearly see an opportunity now to save Kosovo for Serbia.

For many Serbs it is also a consolation, albeit a small one, not to be the pariahs of the international community for once and to feel some international compassion for their plight.

Italian carabinieri in Bosnia on their way to Kosovo
24 Sept 1998: Nato issues ultimatum to Milosevic to stop crackdown on Kosovo Albanians
24 Mar 1999: Nato begins air strikes against Yugoslavia over Kosovo
10 June 1999: Air strikes suspended after Milosevic agrees to withdraw troops. UN approves peace plan for Kosovo, establishes K-for peace force
11 June 1999: Nato troops enter Kosovo
10 Dec 2003: UN unveils road map on conditions Kosovo must meet by mid-2005 for talks on final status
17 Mar 2004: Serbs and Albanians clash in the worst violence seen since 1999

Albanian leaders in Kosovo have appealed to their own community to end the violence immediately, so far with little apparent effect.

The one exception was when the prime minister of the PISG - provisional institutions of self government - Bajran Rezhepi, and several of his ministers, were reported to have successfully persuaded one Albanian crowd to disperse as it prepared to march on the Serb village of Caglavica.

One of the underlying causes of the violence is clearly widespread impatience on the Albanian side with the lack of progress towards independence.

They accuse the international community of making one excuse after another to delay talks on the final status of the province.

Back in Mitrovica, Father German says this is not a religious war but an ethnic conflict. Nationalism is to blame, he says.

Elsewhere in the Balkans, many will recognise this explanation from their own experience.

The BBC's Jonny Dymond
"There has been outrage in Belgrade at the treatment Kosovo Serbs are receiving"

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