13 July 2007

15,000 Serbs protest U.S. policies on Kosovo; leaders warn of instability

Associated Press, Tuesday, February 27, 2007 12:16 PM


BELGRADE, Serbia-Thousands of Serbs rallied against the U.S. policies on Kosovo on Tuesday, as the Balkan country's leaders warned that secession by the province could lead to regional instability.


About 15,000 people chanted slogans outside the U.S. embassy in Belgrade in the largest anti-U.S. gathering here since the fall of the ex-president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Protesters accused Washington of being the main advocate of the bid by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority to split the province from Serbia.


The demonstrators, mostly Kosovo Serbs, carried Serbian flags and banners saying "USA World Terrorist" or "Down with Bush."


Serbia has seen a rise in nationalism over Kosovo recently, as talks have continued about a U.N. plan envisaging monitored statehood for the Serbian province which has been a U.N. protectorate since 1999.


The protesters booed and jeered at the mention of the U.N. draft, designed by chief U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari, which proposes that Kosovo be granted its own constitution, national symbols and army. No violent incidents were reported.


The U.S. embassy said in a statement that Charge d'Affaires Roderick Moore met with the protest organizers, and told them that "the U.S., as a democratic country, supports the right to peaceful protest as a legitimate method of free expression."


Moore "also emphasized to the delegation the support of the U.S. for a peaceful and secure future for all the people of Kosovo, including Kosovo Serbs," the embassy statement said.


The United States has praised Ahtisaari's plan, while Serbia's traditional ally Russia opposed it, heralding a possible showdown between the two countries, which both hold veto powers at the U.N. Security Council, when the proposal reaches the council in March.


Illustrating the divide, the demonstrators carried banners praising Russia and posters of President Vladimir Putin.


Serbia has rejected the U.N. plan, saying it would lead to the independence of a region it considers its historic heartland. On Tuesday, top Serbian officials warned that Kosovo's secession also could lead to violence.


"Serbia wants a compromise, we do not want a solution that would lead to escalation of violence or instability in the region," said President Boris Tadic after talks with Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, current chairman of the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.


"We will lead peaceful policies, we will not lead the policies of the 1990s," he added, referring to Milosevic's era which saw four wars in the Balkans, including the one in Kosovo in 1998-99. "But we expect understanding for our bid to preserve the territorial integrity of our country."


In a separate statement after meeting with Moratinos, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said "any imposed solution would have big and serious consequences for stability."


Moratinos said stability in the Balkans was crucial for a stable Europe, urging the Serbian leaders to work on a compromise.


During a visit to Kosovo later Tuesday, Moratinos called on both Serbs and ethnic Albanians to refrain from violence, saying it was "vital that at this crucial moment all people living in Kosovo show political unity and patience."


Serbia has suggested Kosovo be granted full autonomy from Belgrade but remain within Serbia's borders, a proposal promptly rejected by the province's ethnic Albanians.


The uncertainty over the province's future status also has led to tensions in Kosovo.


Associated Press writer Garentina Kraja contributed to this report from Kosovo.