Page last updated at 18:42 GMT, Saturday, 28 June 2008 19:42 UK

Kosovo Serbs launch new assembly

The inaugural session of the assembly in Mitrovica
Kosovo Serbs are refusing to recognise Pristina's authority

Serbs in Kosovo have inaugurated their own assembly set up in defiance of the majority ethnic Albanian government and the United Nations.

The gathering was held in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica.

Forty-five members were elected in May during Serbia's general and municipal elections - a ballot which the UN and Kosovo's government said was illegal.

Kosovo's ethnic Albanians declared independence from Serbia in February, despite Serb and Russian opposition.

Kosovo has been recognised by 43 states, including the United States and most European Union nations - but Belgrade and Moscow say the move was illegal under international law.

'Virtual reality'

People from across Serbia converged on Mitrovica to show their support for the new assembly of Kosovo's Serbs.

Kosovo's President Fatmir Sejdiu (left) and parliament speaker Jakup Krasniqi sign Kosovo's constitution in Pristina on 15 June
Kosovo's new constitution grants broad autonomy to the Serb minority

The opening session took place on St Vitus day, when Serbs remember their defeat by invading Ottoman forces in 1389 - an event that lies at the core of the Serb claim to Kosovo.

The assembly was formed by hardline Serb politicians in Kosovo and was set up to help "co-ordination" with the Serb authorities in Belgrade, officials said.

Slobodan Samardzic, Serbia's minister for Kosovo, told delegates that the assembly would help Serbia fight to keep Kosovo.

Kosovo's President Fatmir Sejdiu has described it as "an attempt to destabilise Kosovo".

A UN spokesman called the assembly a "virtual reality".

The BBC's Helen Fawkes in Mitrovica says that although it will have no real powers, the assembly is a challenge to the authority of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian government.

It will strengthen the parallel Serb institutions, she says.

Security has been stepped up in Mitrovica - a flashpoint for recent violence. Earlier this month a gunman attacked a police station. In March, a riot left one UN policeman dead.

Some 90% of Kosovo's two million population are Albanians. Northern Kosovo is dominated by about 50,000 Serbs.

From 1999 to 2008 the province was administered by the UN, after enduring a conflict fuelled by ethnic division and repression.

The country's constitution came into force on 15 June, granting broad autonomy to Kosovo's Serb minority.

However, reconciliation between ethnic Albanians, most of whom support independence, and Serbs remains elusive.

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