North Mitrovica, Kosovo, 7 February 2008 – The message on the front of the black T-shirts on sale in the Serb gift shop in this scruffy, rainy northern Kosovo town is simple – underneath an embroidered logo of a skull and crossbones, it states: “Serb Chetniks: We Will be Back.

“The reference to ultra-hardline, violent Serb nationalists defending Kosovo comes at a crucial time, as Serbs in the province fear they will be the targets of ethnic Albanian violence once an imminent declaration of independence is made by the province’s Albanian majority this month.

Around 200 leaders of Kosovo’s Serb-inhabited municipalities and enclaves met yesterday in the ethnically divided northern town of Mitrovica to decide how to defend themselves.

“It’s exceptionally important that (the Serbian] parliament convenes soon to work out how to defend the Serbian state,” said Marko Jaksic, leader of the Assembly of Serb Municipalities and Enclaves in Kosovo, representing the 100,000 Serbs still present in the UN-administered southern Serbian province.

He added: “Serbia is in danger of having Kosovo taken from her.”

Kosovo is expected to make a unilateral declaration of independence in a matter of days, according to politicians in Kosovo and EU and US officials.

Serbs in Mitrovica and Kosovo’s scattered enclaves fear they will be the target of ethnic violence at the hands of Kosovo Albanians.

“Mitrovica is the key to Kosovo’s success,” Admiral Mark Fitzgerald, Nato’s commander for southern Europe, said.

A substantial number of illegally armed Serb former police officers, soldiers and paramilitaries are in Mitrovica to ensure the defence of the city and its Serb inhabitants, security sources say.

Officials from Nato’s peacekeeping force in Kosovo, known as K-For – currently 17,000-strong – have pretended for seven years to be unaware of the existence of any parallel security structures in Mitrovica, but in reality have done almost nothing to contain them, at times being actively complicit with them.

Mr Jaksic said the EU mission was coming to Kosovo “to steal our homeland, our cradle”.

On the streets of the rundown former mining town, where ethnic Albanians and Serbs live divided by the River Ibar, tension lies just below the surface.

“There’s a feeling of fear that is present,” said Vesna Rajkovic, 47, a banking economist in North Mitrovica.

One United Nations police officer, who was observing an apartment block where Serbs and Albanians lived side by side, said: “On the surface, things appear calm.

But to the trained eye, it would take one very small incident to create a massive reaction, a huge series of incidents, immediately.”

Kosovo has been run as a UN protectorate since June 1999 after a 78-day Nato bombing campaign drove Slobodan Milosevic’s atrocity-prone soldiers, paramilitaries and policemen from the province, leaving an estimated 12,000 people dead.

Thirty kilometres south of Mitrovica, on a low hill overlooking the capital, Pristina, sits the Serb memorial at Gazimestan, commemorating the 1389 battle of Kosovo Polje, where the Serbs were defeated by Ottoman Turks.

The memorial is surrounded by barbed wire, armoured personnel carriers and a platoon of Slovakian and Slovenian peacekeepers from K-For. For now, all is quiet, and, they say, they are not busy.

However, if Kosovo declares independence, it could only be a matter of time before all that changes.

Declaration brings memories of previous conflict

Kosovan Serb leaders pledged yesterday to shun any independence declaration by ethnic Albanians and set up their own institutions in the northern part of the breakaway province.

A senior Serb leader said the minority would form an assembly that would regulate the lives of Serbs in Kosovo. “The assembly of the Serb population in Kosovo commits itself to establish its own institutions… that regulate civilian and all other aspects of governance,” Tomislav Zivkovic said.

The decision to set up their own institutions is reminiscent of the early 1990s, when ethnic Albanians ignored Serbia’s decision to revoke the province’s autonomy, setting up their own institutions and boycotting central authorities as part of their quest for an independent state.

The developments led to an ethnic Albanian insurgency that was met by a brutal crackdown from Serbian forces.

Source: The Scotsman