U.N. accuses Serbia of "provocation" in north Kosovo

Other News Materials 12 December 2007 16:46 (UTC +04:00)

( Reuters ) - The U.N. mission in Kosovo accused Serbia on Wednesday of "provocation" by opening a Serbian government office in the Serb north, and said it was closely monitoring developments in the area.

The opening of the office in the Serb half of the ethnically-divided town of Mitrovica on Monday coincided with the formal end to negotiations that failed to resolve the fate of Serbia's U.N.-run southern province.

Leaders of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority said they would begin talks with their Western backers on a declaration of independence in early 2008. But NATO allies with 16,000 troops in Kosovo are concerned the Serb north could try to break away.

"The opening of this office is raising the level of the Serbian government presence in Kosovo," U.N. mission spokesman Alexander Ivanko told a news conference.

"We consider this a provocative act."

Ivanko said the mission was seeking guidance from U.N. headquarters in New York and would brief diplomats from the Contact Group steering Balkan policy -- the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Russia - during the week.

"We are very much focused on what is happening in the north," he added.

The north, home to just under half of Kosovo's remaining 120,000 Serbs, has resisted U.N. efforts to integrate it with the rest of the province. The U.N. mission exerts little real control over the region, which adjoins the rest of Serbia and is controlled politically and financially by Belgrade.

Serbia lost formal control over Kosovo in 1999, when NATO bombed to drive out Serb forces and halt the killing and ethnic cleansing of Albanian civilians during a two-year counter-insurgency war.

But Belgrade continues to provide healthcare services, schooling and administrative functions for Serbs, who largely reject the Albanian-dominated institutions in Pristina .

Serbia's Minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic , cut the ribbon to the office on Monday, and said it was would serve to "intensify" Belgrade's parallel network of services for Serbs.

Backed by Russia, Serbia rejects independence for Kosovo. Moscow has blocked the adoption of an independence plan at the U.N. Security Council, but the blueprint's Western backers say they will move ahead with it without a new U.N. resolution after Serb-Albanian negotiations ended in deadlock on Monday.

The European Union is preparing to deploy a 1,600-strong police and justice mission. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said on Tuesday the mission would be "unlawful."