Kosovo statehood delicate for NATO force

( AP ) - Kosovo - Spc. Scott Krampitz stands on a plateau overlooking a smattering of shabby houses against a backdrop of snowcapped peaks known as the Cursed Mountains.

His unit of Humvees and trucks patrol muddy roads in northern Kosovo, protecting tiny hamlets of Albanians from ethnic Serbs infuriated by the birth of the newest state in Europe.

The Minnesota native is one of 1,455 American troops taking part in a NATO peacekeeping force whose mission has become even more delicate since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia.

The United States and many Western countries have recognized Kosovo's statehood, angering Serbs who consider the region the heart of their culture and orthodox religion. At same time, NATO troops strive not to take sides between Kosovo's rival groups - putting them in a tough spot last week when Serbs vented their anger by destroying U.N. and NATO property, setting off hand grenades and staging protests.

Serbs used plastic explosives and bulldozers to destroy the two main U.N.-run border checkpoints between Kosovo and Serbia. Protesters tipped over metal sheds that housed Kosovo's multiethnic customs service and sent them sliding down a hill and into a river. They vandalized and set fire to passport control booths.

NATO peacekeepers did not intervene, apparently trying to avoid stoking tensions.

"We are ready to act tough in case of further such incidents," said Maj. Etienne du Fayet, the French spokesman of the NATO Task Force North stationed in Mitrovica, a Kosovo town split by a river into Albanian and Serbian sides.

Kosovo Albanians represent 90 percent of the new state's 2 million people. But here in the north, they are a tiny minority compared to Serbs.

Aliu Hazir, an ethnic Albanian living in an isolated mountain settlements, fears that Serb anger could boil over into the sort of bloody ethnic cleansing campaign triggered by former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's offensive against separatist Kosovo Albanians.

The bloodletting stopped only when NATO chased Serbian troops out in 1999, and Kosovo became a U.N.-administered province.

"If the Americans were not here, we would have already left," Hazir said, pointing at the charred brick walls of homes torched in the Serb crackdown nine years ago.

"There are crazy people on both sides," Hazir said as a red Albanian flag with a black double-headed eagle defiantly fluttered from the roof of his barn, which he said he only recently managed to repair after it was burned in 1999.

"We wouldn't be able to live through the same hell once again," he said.

Of the 15,900 peacekeepers from 24 NATO countries in Kosovo, Italy is the largest contributor, followed by France and Germany. Ten countries from outside the Western alliance also have units.

A big part of their mission is to protect the 30,000 Serbs who live in virtual ghettos in isolated enclaves on the Albanian-dominated territory, protected by KFOR. About 200,000 Serbs fled Kosovo in 1999 after reprisal attacks by Kosovo Albanians.

"We are faced with a display of nationalism on both sides," Krampitz, of Owatonna, Minn.

In addition to the NATO peacekeeping force, a multiethnic U.N. mission has administered the province since 1999. Further testing international resolve to keep Kosovo intact, the Serbs prevented Albanian policemen, judges and other staff of the U.N. mission from going to work in northern Kosovo since Sunday's independence declaration.

At least four hand grenades exploded in front of a U.N. court in Mitrovica in the last few days, as Serb judges and the court clerks staged daily protests in front of the building to make sure that Albanians could not get in.

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