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Pending Independence Declaration Causes Tension in Kosovo's Second Largest City

As the south Serbian province of Kosovo prepares, with U.S. and European Union backing, to declare independence, the territory of two million remains bitterly divided with the Albanian majority in favor and the Serbian minority opposed. VOA's Barry Wood reports from Kosovo's second biggest and most ethnically divided city, Mitrovica.

Mitrovica's two realities are neatly divided by the fast moving Ibar River. Bordered by low mountains on three sides, Mitrovica's town center until 1999 spanned both sides of the river. But in the aftermath of war, Serbs fled north, and Albanians south. While South Mitrovica's population is much larger, North Mitrovica and its 20,000 inhabitants comprise Kosovo's only Serb majority urban area.

There has been little interaction across the ethnic divide since 1999, when NATO launched air strikes against Serbian forces who had been waging a campaign of violence and repression against ethnic Albanians.

Bojan Vasic, a law student at North Mitrovica's Serbian language university, says a Kosovar Albanian declaration of independence will be illegal, but he expects no trouble in the north.

"I do not expect trouble here in the north of Kosovo because simply put people will not recognize that secession," he said. "People will reject it and they will act as if it didn't happen."

As has been the case since the United Nations took over from the expelled Serbian administration, North Mitrovica uses Serbian money, flies the Serbian flag, reads Serbian newspapers, and uses Serbian license plates.

Across the river to the south, the U.N. regional administrator, Gerrard Gallucci, occupies a third floor office in a building that once was a Serbian bank. Gallucci says beneath a calm exterior both sides of the city are tense.

"The important thing is that here we have a very delicately balanced situation, certainly in the north. I think Serbs and Albanians who live here understand quite well how fragile it is," he said.

Gallucci, a retired U.S. diplomat, says Mitrovica remains fragile because much of the population is armed.

"Everybody has weapons here, north and south. It's an unfortunate reality that there are enough guns here for another war," he said.

The office of South Mitrovica's mayor, Bajram Rexhepi, is just across the street from Gallucci's. Both overlook the Ibar River, the main bridge, and the large French garrison on the south bank of the river. Rexhepi is concerned about provocations that could spark violence when independence is declared.

"People probably could be provoked. I mean by that the Albanian majority and the Serbian minority have to exercise self control," he said.

Fifty years ago in socialist Yugoslavia, Mitrovica was relatively prosperous. It was a single industry town. The Trepca mining complex, with its network of smelters, power plants, and fabrication facilities on both sides of the river, employed 25,000 people of all ethnicities. Today the sprawling Trepca works are idle and decrepit. Experts say there is no hope of significant revival. Mitrovica's unemployment rate exceeds 65 percent.

Even if there is no violence here after independence, the city's economy is destitute.

This, says U.N. administrator Gallucci, is the city's biggest problem.

"You see the men filling the cafes, young men, who have no prospect of finding a job. There are middle aged and older men who once were able to bring home the salaries and provide for their families, living on whatever they can find," he said.

There are fears that idle unemployed men could be easily stirred by nationalist emotion.

Kosovo's NATO-led security force, known as KFOR, is confident it can be keep the peace whatever happens in the territory. On both sides of the river, people are reassured by the presence of KFOR, whose numbers throughout Kosovo total some 16,000.