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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Kosovo's premier says Serbs won't invade

Kosovo's prime minister on Wednesday dismissed Serbia's fierce opposition to the province's drive for independence, insisting that decades of bloodshed in the Balkans are over and Serbs will never dare to invade Kosovo again because they have "no courage."

In an interview with The Associated Press, Agim Ceku condemned a recent spate of bombings — including an attack late Tuesday that injured four Serbs — and he blamed Serbian nationalists for using "primitive propaganda" to incite ethnic tensions as the United Nations nears a decision on possible statehood for Kosovo.

Serbs know enough "not to invade Kosovo again," Ceku said, adding: "They have no courage."

"War is past. I'm sure there's no willingness to choose this way of realizing their wishes," Ceku said. "That is all mythology. There's a huge lack of reality in Serbia."

Ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of Kosovo's population of 2 million, want independence. Serbs are willing to grant the province broad autonomy but consider it the heart of their ancient homeland and want it to remain a part of Serbia.

The clash over its future direction has led to bloodshed before: From 1998-99, Serb forces loyal to the late Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic waged a brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists — a war that killed 10,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, and drove thousands more from their homes.

Ceku spoke in the wake of tough remarks by his Serbian counterpart, Vojislav Kostunica, contending that Kosovo "has always been and forever will remain within Serbia," and a call by Serbian nationalist leader Tomislav Nikolic for that country's army to "stand ready" to go to war if the province gains its independence through U.N. talks.

On Friday, the chief U.N. envoy for Kosovo — former Finnish president Maarti Ahtisaari — is expected to brief key members of the Security Council on the province's future path, which many observers believe will lead to statehood by year's end.

Although few expect a renewal of hostilities, particularly since 16,000 NATO-led peacekeepers still patrol Kosovo, there have been fears of a resurgence of violence, and tensions have soared amid the latest spate of bombings. Two of the explosions targeted the cars of top officials, although they were not hurt.

But Ceku conceded the attacks undermine Kosovo's drive to establish itself as "a multiethnic, nonviolent country," and he reassured the province's estimated 100,000 minority Serbs that the authorities would protect them.

Since the war ended seven years ago, about 200,000 Serbs have left Kosovo, fearing reprisal attacks.

"I have encouraged Kosovo's Serbs not to leave, not to be discouraged," Ceku told the AP. "Independence is the time to stay, not leave. Independence is the time to come back."

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