( AP ) - Staff Sgt. Nathan Pike grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota. The other day he was feeding cows in Kosovo.
The ethnic strife in the Kosovo town of Vitina underscores the challenge that confronts NATO-led peacekeepers as the southern Serbian province prepares to declare independence.
Nearly a decade after Kosovo's 1998-99 war, tensions still run high between its ethnic Albanian majority and Serbian minority - and the Western military alliance hopes its "boots on the ground" approach will make both sides feel safer as they face an uncertain future.
"We're not here for this side of town or that side of town. We're here for everybody," said Pike, 37, a native of Spring Valley, Minn.
On a recent foot patrol aimed at boosting the visibility of the 16,000-strong NATO force, Pike tried to ease Serb farmer Miroslav Rajkic's deep-seated suspicions by helping to feed his livestock.
Rajkic, 74, said he trusts the soldiers - but sees no future for Serbs in an independent Kosovo.
"I live in a cage: Albanians on one side, Albanians on the other," he said as a watchdog on a chain barked wildly - Rajkic's way of screening visitors.
"Stay here after independence? I don't think so!" he said. If Kosovo gains statehood, "I'll sell my house and leave."
An estimated 10,000 people died during the war, when Serbia's troops launched an onslaught on separatist Albanians, and close to 1 million others were driven into neighboring Macedonia and Albania. Most came back when the war ended.
Kosovo has been under U.N. and NATO administration ever since. But it remains formally part of Serbia, and its ethnic Albanian leaders have pledged to declare independence early in 2008.
Their insistence on statehood has set up a showdown between the U.S. and key European powers, which support independence, and Russia, a staunch ally of Serbia which says secession is illegal and would set a dangerous global precedent.
NATO's Kosovo force, known as KFOR, recently boosted patrols and deployed extra troops - mostly Germans and Americans - in the province's tense north, where most of the Serbs live. Serbs vow to reject any declaration of independence and say they'll do whatever it takes to stay linked to the rest of Serbia.
Many are as distrustful of NATO as they are of the Albanians, blaming the alliance for failing to protect them during anti-Serb rioting in March 2004 that left 11 dead and scores of Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries burned.
Since then, KFOR has worked on making the force more flexible and on overcoming restrictions imposed by contributing countries which limited its ability to react quickly and forcefully to the 2004 unrest.
A Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, said that after independence is declared the peacekeepers will focus on securing Kosovo's borders to prevent any extremist activity. NATO also will cooperate closely with local authorities to secure the property of any Serbs who might leave, the official said.
Kosovo's international administrators also may tap the local emergency force - the Kosovo Protection Corps, made up mostly of former ethnic Albanian guerrillas who fought Serbia - to protect Serb property, the official said.
"This will be a time when those that oppose Kosovo's independence will seek every opportunity to embarrass the West," the official told The Associated Press. "We need to make sure that opportunity does not arise."
Kosovo's leaders have pledged to carefully coordinate their independence declaration with the U.S. and the EU, and have promised the Serb community - now roughly 100,000 - that it has a future in the province of 2 million. There is no timetable for the NATO force to leave.
On the ground, peacekeepers like Pike are trying to show their support in practical ways.
That means raising money to repair a wooden bridge over a canal separating Vitina's Serb neighborhood from the rest of town.
It's an unorthodox task for a soldier. But KFOR contends it's much easier to provide a safe environment if its troops get acquainted with the people they're trying to protect.
Underscoring the difficulties of their mission, Pike's unit - Task Force Bayonet of the Minnesota National Guard - encountered a poignant example of the bitter ethnic divide.
On the Albanian bank of the canal was a gate adorned with a 6-foot Statue of Liberty painted in red, white and blue. Just across the waterway, on the gate to another home, a sign gave a phone number and a message scribbled in Serbian: House for sale.
Pike hopes his efforts will help bridge the gap - and keep the peace.
"It's not just driving through town waving to everybody, talking to people in the community, but getting to know them," he said.