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Monday, August 23, 1999 Published at 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK

World: Europe

Analysis: A divided Kosovo?

Kosovo's Serbian minority has been hit by killings and intimidation

By South-east Europe analyst Gabriel Partos

The head of the United Nations administration in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, has reiterated that he is opposed to plans put forward by Kosovar Serb leaders to create ethnic Serb cantons in Kosovo.

Kosovo: Special Report
But he said consideration would be given to relocating some local Serbs within Kosovo for their own safety as a short-term safety measure.

As the number of Kosovar Serbs continues to dwindle because of intimidation by members of the majority ethnic Albanian community, local Serb leaders have stepped up their demands for the cantonisation of Kosovo.

Over the weekend Kosovar Serb representatives on the Kosovo Transitional Council - the multi-ethnic consultative body Mr Kouchner has set up - unveiled a plan for setting up five Serb cantons in areas with previously substantial ethnic Serb populations.

Serb representative Momcilo Trajkovic said: " We want to have Serb authorities, Serb police and Serb judiciary in the territory where Serbs used to live and still do.

"We want to see joint authorities in the towns, with proportional representation, and we want decisions to be taken by consensus," he said.

Long-standing proposal

Although the current impetus behind the establishment of cantons is to do with the Kosovar Serbs' security, the plans pre-date the recent conflict over Kosovo which was halted by Nato's 11-week bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.

Indeed, cantonisation is viewed as a possible hidden form of partition and for that reason the UN, which wants to preserve a united, multi-ethnic Kosovo, is wary of the project.

There has been speculation in the past that the Yugoslav leader, Slobodan Milosevic, might be prepared to divide up Kosovo with the valuable mining areas of the north and substantial numbers of ethnic Serbs staying under Belgrade's control.

Be that as it may, this time the Yugoslav leadership has so far stayed silent on the matter.

And the Kosovo branch of Mr Milosevic's Socialist Party has even criticised Mr Kouchner's suggestion that it might be necessary to relocate Kosovar Serbs from the more exposed areas to safer districts - strictly on a short-term basis - before their security could be guaranteed throughout the province.

The Bosnian precedent

The problem about short-term arrangements is that they often turn into long-term reality - as in Bosnia-Hercegovina, where many refugees remain far from their homes nearly four years after the end of the war.

On the other hand, Bosnia does provide an example of cantonisation: the Muslim-Croat federation, making up half of Bosnia, is divided into 10 cantons.

But conditions in the two countries are different. Croats form a substantial group within Bosnia; while the proportion of Serbs in Kosovo, already under 10% before the conflict, has now gone down to 2-3%.

For the moment, security remains the key issue in Kosovo. And plans for the protection of the local Serbs are due to be discussed at the next meeting of the Transitional Council, due on Wednesday.

The regrouping of local Serbs into safer areas is almost certain to be on the agenda, even if the idea of setting up separate cantons is, for the moment, being ruled out.

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