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Kosovo Counting on NATO

Thursday, February 21, 2008

PRISTINA, Kosovo —  Kosovo is counting on NATO to secure the new nation's borders and help provide stability as Serbia angrily challenges its statehood, the president said Thursday in his first interview since Kosovo declared independence.

President Fatmir Sejdiu said in an interview with The Associated Press that NATO's promise not to abandon Kosovo provided a "powerful guarantee" for stability. He warned Serbia that any attempts to partition the fledgling country along ethnic lines would bring "grave consequences."

Sejdiu spoke before a massive protest turned violent in the Serbian capital, with riot police firing tear gas at Serb rioters who broke into the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade and set fire to the interior. Serbs have protested daily since Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership declared independence on Sunday.

"There is a part of society that wants to destabilize Kosovo and create alarming, hopeless situations and scare the international community," Sejdiu told the AP. "Any change of borders brings extremely grave consequences for the region, and someone then has to be held accountable."

Hundreds of Serbs have attacked border outposts this week, prompting NATO to reinforce the northern Serb-dominated part of Kosovo. NATO, which now has about 16,000 peacekeepers in Kosovo, has policed Kosovo since halting a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in 1999.

Serbian officials have said the attacks were in line with its attempt to contest Kosovo's secession and protest U.S. support for it. They called for calm on Thursday, however, after the protest by about 150,000 people in Belgrade turned violent.

Serbia _ and Kosovo's Serbs, who make up less than 10 percent of Kosovo's 2 million population _ have refused to give up Kosovo, which they consider the cradle of Serbian culture. Belgrade has ruled out military action to reclaim Kosovo, but said it has a secret "action plan." Serb officials also have said Serbia would seek to retain control of areas in northern Kosovo inhabited by Serbs.

Kosovo, which is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, has not been under Belgrade's control since 1999, when a U.N. mission took over its administration.

Sejdiu called Thursday on Kosovo's Serb minority to recognize "a new reality" and accept ethnic Albanians' offers of broad rights under an internationally brokered plan. He accused Belgrade of making "irrational calls" for violence, and urged Serbia's leaders to break with the past.

"The region is fed up with conflict and bloody wars," Sejdiu said, sitting in his office decorated with the new flag of Kosovo _ a blue banner with a yellow silhouette of Kosovo and six white stars representing the six main ethnic groups. "It is important to give a peaceful future a chance."

Leaders in Kosovo's isolated Serb enclaves also urged Belgrade to tone down its rhetoric or risk endangering lives.

Kosovo Serb leader Rada Trajkovic called on Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to fire his minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, for encouraging violent protests, according to the independent Serbian news agency FoNet.

"Serbs from the north have brought other Serbs in Kosovo in a position to fear for their children and their lives, which is a very painful feeling _ the fear of what your own people might do," Trajkovic was quoted Thursday by FoNet as saying.

Although the U.S and key European nations were quick to recognize Kosovo as a state, some countries _ such as Spain, Romania and Slovakia _ have not endorsed its independence, fearing it might encourage separatist movements elsewhere.

Sejdiu expressed confidence, however, that other nations would recognize Kosovo's statehood "sooner or later."

"We have made our choice, and that is the choice of a free market economy, human rights and freedom of speech," Sejdiu said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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