( Reuters ) - Kosovo has asked NATO to secure a large reservoir in the north out of concern Serbs living there might cut vital water supplies if the Albanian majority declares independence from Serbia within weeks.
Kosovo Albanian leaders are preparing to declare independence in the first months of 2008, almost nine years after NATO drove out Serb forces and the United Nations and a NATO peace force (KFOR) took control.
"We have asked the KFOR commander to secure the Gazivoda Lake. KFOR accepted the request," a senior Kosovo security source told Reuters.
Kosovo Albanians fear the Serb-dominated north could disrupt water and electricity supplies as part of a raft of measures being prepared by the Serbian government in response to the territory's Western-backed secession.
Cutting supplies from the Gazivoda Lake in the north, where 50,000 Serbs live, could potentially leave 200,000 Albanians without drinking water and add to already crippling power cuts, Kosovo officials say. The lake provides water for the cooling towers of Kosovo's decrepit power plant.
A KFOR spokesman said the troops were ready to protect "all strategic places in Kosovo" and were "monitoring" Gazivoda.
Serbia, which lost control over Kosovo after a wave of ethnic cleansing by Serb forces fighting separatist rebels, says it has an 'Action Plan' to stifle the new state, which analysts say might include border closures and an economic embargo.
Kosovo Interior Minister Blerim Kuci said the ethnic Albanian leadership had discussed the issue with KFOR's French commander Lieutenant General Xavier de Marnhac.
Abdullah Nishori, director of a water system to which Gazivoda belongs, said a cut in supplies would have a huge effect.
"Between 13 and 15 percent of the Kosovo population would be left without drinking water, and Kosovo would be left in the dark," he told Reuters.
"KFOR is patrolling more around the lake and this is a sign it has taken seriously the message that there could be problems up there," said Nishori. A key electricity sub-station is also located in the north.
The issue is seen as a test of Western resolve to stand up to Serbs in northern Kosovo who promise to reject a declaration of independence by 2 million Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the population.
Western countries in the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday said they would take the lead in steering the province to independence from Serbia over Russian objections, arguing that the potential for a negotiated solution had been exhausted through almost two years of failed Serb-Albanian talks.
NATO allies with 16,000 troops in Kosovo fear a Serb backlash in the north, which adjoins Serbia proper, and a possible bid to break away which could trigger regional unrest.
Analysts say Serbian sabotage of the reservoir would almost certainly provoke Albanian attacks on isolated Serb enclaves across the rest of Kosovo, where over half the remaining 120,000 Serbs still live.
A senior KFOR official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the force was wary of being drawn too far away from its primary task of preventing any escalation of violence.
"We do not underestimate the threat," he told Reuters. "But Serbia has to be careful of the consequences for its own community."