Kusce/Kosovo, 28 February 2008 – Dozens of Serb officers have deserted the Kosovo police force since the new state declared independence, police said Thursday, snubbing ethnic Albanian leaders and shattering the only institution in which real cooperation existed between the two ethnic groups.Some 170 of the force’s 800 officers have either quit or not shown up for work since the Feb. 17 declaration, police officials said. Dozens of others have also threatened to follow suit.

The defections will delight authorities in Belgrade, who have been encouraging Kosovo’s Serbs to boycott the fledgling government’s institutions. However, it will come as a blow to Kosovo’s U.N. mission, which has poured millions of dollars (euros) and years of effort into creating and training the force.

“We have enough police to handle anything,” said Luis Cisneros, a spokesman for the U.N. police. “But we want everybody to be happy, both Serbs and Albanians. That’s the main point.”

The 7,000-strong multiethnic force had been praised as one of few successful stories of Kosovo’s Serbs and ethnic Albanians working together. But the police have been under particular pressure since the declaration, which was followed by violent protests by Serbs that raised fears of a wider conflict.

An explosion Thursday evening shattered the uneasy calm in the northern city of Kosovska Mitrovica, damaging two U.N. vehicles. No one was hurt, police said.

Serbia intends to take legal action against governments that recognized Kosovo’s move. The government voted Thursday to form a team to determine which international courts would have jurisdiction.

Making good on its pledge to try to block Kosovo from joining international organizations, Serbia’s foreign minister walked out of a meeting of his counterparts in Sofia, Bulgaria, when a delegate from Kosovo took the floor to speak.

“Kosovo will not be a member of the United Nations; it will not be a member of the OSCE. And as such, it will not belong to the world community of sovereign nations,” Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told delegates at the meeting.

But the groundwork for greater international integration was being laid in Vienna, Austria, where the International Steering Group for Kosovo — representatives from countries backing Kosovo’s independence — held its inaugural meeting. The group will help guide the new nation.

Serbia’s government, meanwhile, postponed discussions on the divisive issue of whether to stop servicing Kosovo’s international debt.

Serbia has been paying off Kosovo’s US$1.2 billion debt, although it has not had any authority over the province since the 1999 war, when NATO launched airstrikes to force Belgrade to end a crackdown against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian separatists. Nationalists argue that Serbia must keep paying to retain its claim on Kosovo.

The estimated 100,000 Serbs who remain in Kosovo have ignored Kosovo’s declaration and threatened to set up their own institutions in Kosovo’s northern tip, where most of the minority Serbs live.

The vast majority of Kosovo’s population is ethnic Albanian. Serbs represent just 10 percent of the region’s 2 million people, but they view Kosovo as the cradle of their culture and Orthodox Christian faith.

The wave of dissent is particularly evident in southeastern Kosovo, which consists of several Serb enclaves. Take the village of Kusce, some 60 kilometers (40 miles) southeast of the capital, Pristina, where dozens of Serb officers in Kosovo police uniforms crowded around a table drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.

Capt. Stojan Denic, 44, the local commander, said Kosovo’s declaration touched off a crisis in confidence with the Serbs they protect.

“They see us as traitors,” Denic said. “So we decided to end cooperation with the regional command.”

Reshat Maliqi, an ethnic Albanian and senior police official, said he hoped those who walked off the job will change their minds.

“We expect at least a part of them to continue with their work,” Maliqi said. “But, even that would be optimistic.”

Denic, though, was convinced more Serbs would opt to leave the force.

“I think all the Serbs, in all the territories will leave (the force),” he said.

Source: Associated Press