- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2008

MITROVICA, Kosovo — Ethnic Serbs in this northern Kosovar city took to the streets for a second day in defiance of Pristina’s declaration of independence. The protesters were joined yesterday by compatriots crossing in from Serbia, as anti-secession mobs torched border posts further north.

At 1 p.m., 2,000 Serbian-flag carrying demonstrators marched down the hill to the bridge separating the Albanian side of Mitrovica from the northern Serb enclave, which shares a border with Serbia proper.

Meanwhile, NATO peacekeepers rolled north to try to halt Serbian mob attacks on Jalinje and Banja, as police fled the burning border posts.

Demonstrators waved Spanish and Russian flags in acknowledgement of those countries’ opposition to the newly declared Republic of Kosovo. Speakers castigated Western powers recognizing Pristina’s government, as Belgrade followed up the recall of its ambassador in Washington with the withdrawal of its representative in Canberra, to protest Australia’s backing of the Kosovo state.

To booming loudspeakers blasting out Orthodox hymns, Serbian student leader Sergej Zaporozac told the cheering crowd that “we are here since ancient times, [and] Kosovo is holy land for Serbs,” in reference to the quasi-mythical place held in Serb nationalism for Kosovo, site of numerous Orthodox monasteries and, on the road linking Pristina and Mitrovica, the tomb of Prince Lazar, martyred in 1289.

The invading Ottoman Turks defeated his combined Serb-Bosnian-Bulgarian army at the Battle of Kosovo Polje, thereby condemning Serbia to almost five centuries of Islamic rule from the Sultan’s court in Istanbul. During the intervening centuries, Turkish rule in the Balkans led to most ethnic Albanians converting to Islam, and bringing ethnic divisions once again to the fore in the Balkans.

In 1989, President Slobodan Milosevic addressed a rally of 1 million Serbs at the very site, precipitating the wars that rent the former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s.

Student Mario Jovanovic, 23, traveled from Vranje in Serbia to join his fellow Serbs at yesterday’s rally. “We will fight for Kosovo in all possible ways,” he said. Mario Simonic made his way from Nis, and several dozen Serbs from Serbia itself were said to be present at the rally.

Earlier, the border gates north of Mitrovica were torched, opening the main Serb-Kosovo customs and border checkpoint in the area. And in the afternoon, long convoys of NATO trucks transported additional personnel and equipment up the road from Pristina to the looming flash point in Mitrovica and further north.

The 16,000-strong NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo since 1999, called KFOR, manned the bridge splitting Mitrovica into its ethnic halves, as the Serb demonstrators approached.

A cigar-toting American military policeman said “barricades are ready to be deployed if this turns messy,” while Ukrainian riot police lurked unseen to Serbian protesters, down a road just on the Albanian side of the bridge.

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