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Last Updated: Monday, 18 February 2008, 22:55 GMT
Anger mounts in Serb corner of Kosovo
By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Mitrovica

A woman cries during a pro-Serbia rally in Mitrovica, Kosovo, on Monday
Kosovo's Serbs are fearful and angry
The schoolchildren poured out of a narrow alleyway, carrying handmade banners.

"Kosovo is the heart of Serbia," they chanted.

On their way to join the demonstration they posed, giggling, for the world press - then rushed on, like a swirl of snow on a wintry day.

It was cold in northern Mitrovica, and few of the older generations shared the children's excitement.

On the outskirts of the town, hard-faced men and women piled out of school buses, which had ferried them in from outlying villages in this, predominantly Serb, north-western corner of Kosovo.

A stage had been erected in the centre, and Serbian folk music played from loudspeakers, before the speeches started.

Between 6,000 and 8,000 people, according to police estimates, gathered for this first public reaction of the Kosovo Serbs to Sunday's declaration of Kosovo's independence.

Speaker after speaker condemned the declaration, and reaffirmed that Kosovo could never secede from the motherland.

'Occupiers'

Some speakers also attacked the EU decision to send a mission here to take over from the UN in 120 days' time.

Map

The Serbian government has made clear that such a mission could only be sent with the approval of the UN Security Council.

With the Security Council split between states which support and oppose independence, the EU has adopted Kosovo as its own problem and approved the mission - with the consent even of those countries which have said they will not recognise an independent Kosovo.

"The EU mission is not welcome here... They are intruders, occupiers and abductors of our land," Marko Jaksic, a hardline local Serb leader, told the crowd.

Burly men with short hair styles and leather jackets manoeuvred through the crowd, keeping an eye on the journalists, monitoring interviews.

Risk of violence

A few hundred metres up the road, almost opposite the police station, an advance party of the EU mission - the International Civilian Office or ICO as it is called - is already ensconced in a former hotel.

A UN vehicle destroyed by an explosion in Zubin Potok, north of Mitrovica, on Monday
The damage so far has been confined to vehicles and property

Tall metal gates, with a fresh coat of paint, United Nations white, protect the occupants from Serb anger. Ukrainian United Nations police patrol outside. There is no EU flag, no insignia or symbols of any kind.

Both the international members of the mission and the local staff feel vulnerable.

There have been several grenade attacks on this and other targets in recent nights.

Two grenades thrown at this building so far have failed to explode. Another blew up in the yard of a house 30m (100 feet) away, shattering windows.

And on Sunday night, two UN vehicles, and one belonging to the local court, a branch of the Pristina-based Ministry of Justice, were set on fire in the village of Zubin Potok.

City split

The crowd marched the short distance from the centre of town to the main bridge across the Ibar, scene of some of the worst inter-ethnic clashes in March 2004.

A pro-Serbia rally in Mitrovica, Kosovo, on Monday, close to the main bridge over the Ibar river which divides the town
The Ibar river divides the city's Serbs from ethnic Albanians

Only this narrow river, with two roads and one pedestrian bridge, separates the predominantly Serb north from the now purely Albanian south of this once multi-ethnic city.

As they marched they took up the children's chant: "Kosovo is the heart of Serbia."

"I came here to defend my country, my land," said Srdjan Komadina, a 17-year-old student.

"Would you give Scotland independence?"

After burning an Albanian flag the crowd rapidly dispersed - as did the UN special riot police, tucked away out of sight, in a car park south of the river.

And everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

The independence of Kosovo has provoked strong emotions, but so far, little violence.





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