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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 February 2008, 11:33 GMT
Tension on new Kosovan border
As Serbs show their anger at the secession of Kosovo with protests in Belgrade, the BBC's Nick Thorpe visits the scene of Tuesday's violent attacks by Serbs on UN border posts.

US troops on the Kosovo-Serbia border
US troops are keeping a tense peace on the border

The road to the Kosovo-Serb border - or boundary line, as the Serbs prefer to consider it - winds along the Ibar river valley.

In the late afternoon sunlight, the undergrowth is brown and green. Men carry hoes on their shoulders, on their way back from a day's work in the fields.

Old women watch from benches beside the road as a French armoured vehicle passes, a young soldier, a military tourist, takes picture after picture from his perch behind a heavy machine gun.

At the Jarinje border crossing there are many signs of Tuesday's attack by Kosovan Serb crowds - burnt-out metal sheds, lying on their side in the river valley below, destroyed cars, pushed to the side of the road like discarded children's toys.

A Nato K-For military bulldozer passes, its windscreen shattered by projectiles. A line of US soldiers, their uniforms a lighter shade of green than those of other national contingents, cradle large guns behind a wall of gravel, their riot shields lying close to hand. UN Special Police Units from Poland in black uniforms, also heavily armed, stand on alert.

Bandit territory

On the Kosovan side there is confusion. Serbian officers of the Kosovo Police Service, the KPS, arrive for their usual afternoon shift, hoping the border will re-open. They complain that their command structure has collapsed - that they are still waiting for orders from Pristina.

Surly Kosovan Serbian drivers glare at the Nato soldiers obstructing their route into Serbia, and goad foreign journalists. This is an important route in normal times, for people working or trading on the other side. Two trucks are parked on the hard shoulder. This is bandit territory. Few cars have number plates - they refuse to carry Kosovo plates, and are reluctant to pay tax on Serbian ones.

UN vehicles burn on the Serbia-Kosovo border, 19/2/08
Local Serbs did not rule out more attacks on UN property

Nato soldiers explain that the border gate is closed for security reasons, but the border itself is not closed - there are smaller crossings, with poorer quality roads. But no commercial traffic can move.

A woman from the Serbian bank in northern Mitrovica phones to complain that the banks are running out of Serbian dinars - the monthly payments of salaries and pensions from Belgrade are not getting through.

As 6pm approaches there is growing excitement - rumours come thick and fast that the border is about to re-open, exactly 24 hours after Nato closed it. We drive back to Mitrovica in the fading light - litter caught in trees and piled at the roadside the only stain on an otherwise beautiful landscape.

A full moon rises clean-faced over the giant Trepca lead and zinc works, where only 600 people work today, of the former workforce of 3,000. No smoke emerges from the tall chimney, to pollute the nearby town. Portuguese K-For soldiers in an armoured vehicle guard the district courthouse - the scene of a grenade attack several nights ago.

Thin optimism

During the day, an informal meeting of UN officials and Serb leaders from across north-western Kosovo is held, hosted by the Orthodox priest, Father Milija. Everyone is there on the Serb side - local mayors, hardliners like Marko Jaksic from the Serbian National Council, Milan Ivanovic from the hospital, and representatives of the Serbian government in Belgrade, drafted to northern Mitrovica to reassure the Kosovan Serbs that they are still part of Serbia.

The Serbs tell the UN they will not attack their personnel. The threat that they may continue to attack their property, their cars and buildings, is implicit. And they will not tolerate the re-establishment of a UN customs post at the border, they say. That makes it feel too much like a real border.

"Things will get better here," my taxi driver promises, politely refusing my request for a receipt for the fare.

"When?" I ask.

"God knows," he answers, pointing upwards through the windscreen. We glance up involuntarily into the gathering darkness, half expecting to see Him. God is great, he adds.

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