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UN Plan for Kosovo May Be Put to Test in Mitrovica

The city of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo has long been a flash point of ethnic tension between the Albanian south side of the Ibar River and the mostly Serbian north. VOA's Barry Wood reports from Mitrovica on efforts to build a structure that could bridge the ethnic divide.

Ethnic hostility is so deep in Mitrovica that the city's main bridge between the north and the south is open only to police and military vehicles. Blue-hatted U.N. police man barricades, while French paratroopers stand guard behind coiled barbed wire.

Dr. Bajram Rexhepi, former Mitrovica mayor and former Kosovo prime minister, is promoting a self-government plan that would address the security concerns of Mitrovica's Serbs.

"They [the Serbs] think that if there could be one kind of municipality with a Serb majority, they would feel more safety," he said. "So I proposed this simple plan for one city with two municipalities for an interim period of three years."

But Dr. Rexhepi's plan is unpopular with both Serbs and Albanians.

The Serbs want more than just an interim period of self-government and do not want to be linked to the more populous Albanian area in the south of Mitrovica. Albanians want a unified city and oppose a Serbian entity, believing it could be a first step towards the secession of the mostly Serbian north of Kosovo.

Former U.S. diplomat Gerard Gallucci, the U.N. administrator of Mitrovica, quotes the words of the American poet Robert Frost, who said that good fences make good neighbors. Gallucci advocates self-government for north Mitrovica.

"I think what we are going to have is a Kosovo made up of municipalities with, in some areas, strong local autonomy," he noted. "In areas that also happen to be Serb majority, they will probably have a bit more interest in using that autonomy. And, I gather, there will also be ways to have transparent open links to Belgrade.

Gallucci dismisses the worry that enhanced self-rule for north Mitrovica is a first step towards partition.

"There will be no partition," he added. "The Contact Group [six major powers guiding the Kosovo negotiations] has said it. Kosovo will be one place, whatever the status."

The six-nation Contact Group guiding the U.N. negotiations on Kosovo's status this week ordered the top U.N. negotiator to develop his own plan for the territory's future. That blueprint is likely to be unveiled by late October. It is expected to specify self-government arrangements for Mitrovica.

In Zvecan, a Serb municipality near north Mitrovica, retired school teacher Anitsa Foranic is fearful that Kosovo will be set on a path to independence, a remedy opposed by most Kosovo Serbs.

She says Albanians and Serbs should be friends as they were before 1999. Serbs, she says, can never agree to independence.

Doctor Rexhepi concedes that it will take a long time to develop trust between Serbs and Albanians in Mitrovica. He knows that some Serbs favor secession. But even if that were possible, he says it would not provide a viable solution for Kosovo's Serbs.

"One third of the Serbs who live in Kosovo are in the northern part," he noted. "But two thirds of them are in other parts of Kosovo. And in this case, if we accept partition, what to do with the other Serbs?"

It is likely that before the end of this year Kosovo will be put on a path to independence. U.N. negotiator Martti Ahtisaari has said that whatever determination he makes, there must be security guarantees for the 100,000 Serbs, Kosovo's biggest minority in a territory of 2 million that is 90 percent ethnic Albanian.