February 27, 2008 / 3:30 PM / 11 years ago

Kosovo Serbs call for return of Russian troops

(Adds Serbian minister on police, paragraph 12-13)

By Branislav Krstic

PRISTINA, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Serbs in Kosovo called on Wednesday for the return of Russian peacekeepers to the country after the ethnic Albanian majority’s declaration of independence from Serbia this month.

The call was made by the Serb National Council, a grouping of Kosovo Serb leaders in the Serb stronghold of northern Mitrovica.

"The Serb National Council calls on Russia to return its KFOR contingent, to stabilise the situation in areas where Serbs are in the majority," Council leader Milan Ivanovic said.

Russia withdrew its troops from the NATO-led Kosovo Force, KFOR, in mid-2003, four years after being deployed with 45,000 others after an 11-week NATO air war to save Kosovo Albanians from ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces fighting guerrillas.

The international force is now down to 16,000 soldiers.

Kosovo’s 120,000 remaining Serbs, almost half of whom live in a thin slice of land in the north adjacent to Serbia, have rejected the Feb. 17 secession, which was backed by the West but condemned by Serbia and Russia.

In a statement on Sunday, the Russian foreign ministry demanded a compromise solution on Kosovo — something the West has assessed as impossible after almost two years of inconclusive negotiations.

The ministry recalled that Russia had previously had a peacekeeping contingent in Kosovo — possibly pointing to plans to propose a return of Russian troops to the territory, in ethnic Serb areas that resist Albanian rule.

In a new sign of the deepening ethnic divide, dozens of Serb officers in the Kosovo police service failed to report for duty on Wednesday in the eastern Gnjilane region.

"The majority of Kosovo Serb police officers in the Gnjilane region have not shown up for work this morning," said regional police spokesman Ismet Hashani. He did not give a reason.

Senior police sources have told Reuters that Serb officers in the Kosovo police no longer receive orders from Pristina headquarters, but coordinate activities with the U.N. police and mayors in Serb areas.

A minister in Belgrade said the developments were all part of Serbia’s plan to isolate Kosovo and strengthen Belgrade’s grip on Serb areas, which some analysts fear could try to split from the new republic.

"We are planning to have our local police in Serb towns in Kosovo," Infrastructure Minister Velimir Ilic said on Belgrade’s independent Radio B92. "It is part of the action plan." (Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci; writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Andrew Roche)

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