March 7, 2008 / 2:08 PM / 10 years ago

US condemns Serb "provocations" in north Kosovo

By Matt Robinson

PRISTINA, March 7 (Reuters) - The United States on Friday condemned Serb "provocations" in Kosovo and rejected Russian suggestions its Western-backed declaration of independence left the new country destined for partition.

"Independence is a fact. This is a reality. History is only going to move forward," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried told a news conference in the Kosovo capital, Pristina.

Backed by Russia, Serbia has rejected the Feb. 17 secession of its former province and is instructing the 120,000 remaining Serbs to sever ties with the 90 percent Albanian majority, deepening the ethnic divide.

Customs, police, courts and transport infrastructure have all been hit in a widening Serb boycott of the new country. The Serb-dominated north stands out as a potential flashpoint, and a challenge to Kosovo’s new European Union overseers.

"There have been various provocations in the north," Fried said after meeting Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu.

"I think the Kosovo leadership has responded to these provocations with, frankly, a maturity that vindicates the decision of the United States and two thirds of the European Union members to recognise it."

Russia and Serbia say the secession cannot be imposed on Kosovo Serbs. Less than half live in the north, the rest in scattered enclaves guarded by a 16,000-strong NATO peace force.



WORDS, NOT REALITY

Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said on Tuesday Moscow had warned repeatedly that a unilateral declaration of independence might lead to the de facto partitioning of Kosovo, and "this is exactly what is happening there."

Fried rejected the suggestion.

"We don’t believe in partition," he said. "These are words, this isn’t reality. There are obviously issues in the north. There are problems that need to be resolved. This will take time."

Kosovo’s declaration of independence last month came almost nine years after NATO went to war to drive out Serb forces and halt their killing and ethnic cleansing of Albanians in a two-year counter-insurgency war.

Serbs rioted in Belgrade and attacked the U.S. embassy, actions Fried described as "deeply disturbing", "outrageous and unacceptable".

The loss of its southern province, steeped in Serb history and legend, has deepened a long-standing rift within Serbia’s governing coalition over its EU future.

Nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said on Friday he no longer trusted his coalition partners, fuelling media speculation he could turn to the hardline nationalist Radical Party to replace the pro-Western Democratic Party in government.

Fried urged Serbia to stick to its European path. Kosovo, he said, faced its own challenges.

"The challenge is to build the state that so many Kosovars have struggled for. A state rooted in law, with strong democratic institutions. A state for all of its people."

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