- The Washington Times - Friday, October 22, 2004

PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro — NATO dispatched extra troops to Kosovo for an election today seen by majority ethnic Albanians as a key step toward turning their U.N.-ruled protectorate into an independent nation.

The voting marks the second such opportunity for the people of Kosovo to elect representatives to an assembly since the United Nations took over administration of the province in 1999.

In preparation for the vote, NATO moved four extra battalions of peacekeeping soldiers into Kosovo.

The peacekeeping mission, known as Kfor, has been bolstered from 17,800 troops, including about 1,800 Americans, to 19,300 troops.

The reinforcements are designed to prevent a repetition of riots that caught Kfor and the U.N. administrators napping in March when 19 persons were killed, 29 Serbian Orthodox churches were burned and more than 800 Serbian houses were destroyed.

Around 4,000 people were driven from their homes as mobs of ethnic Muslim Albanians rampaged through Serbian villages.

More than 300 French troops parachuted into the province earlier this month in an extravagant display of NATO’s resolve in the run-up to the polls.

Serbia’s leaders are divided over the usefulness of the voting. But ethnic Albanian politicians see a chance to elect the team that will represent them at talks scheduled to start next year on defining Kosovo’s final status — either as an independent nation or a autonomous province of Serbia and Montenegro.

Demands for independence from Belgrade to end Kosovo’s current uneasy status as a province of Serbia and Montenegro have dominated the campaign of the ethnic Albanian parties, especially in the speeches of Kosovo’s president, Ibrahim Rugova, leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo.

Ethnic Albanians make up 90 percent of Kosovo’s population of 1.9 million people.

About 200,000 Serbs have left Kosovo since the U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign 1999, many of them preferring life in refugee camps in Serbia proper to reprisal attacks by Albanian extremists linked to the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Only about 80,000 Serbs remain but Serbia’s prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, insists that Belgrade will never surrender sovereignty over the province.

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