By Matthew Robinson
MITROVICA, Serbia and Montenegro, April 19 (Reuters) - The United Nations may have to extend its stay in Kosovo after a decision on an Albanian demand for independence to oversee a peaceful transition in the Serb-dominated north, a U.N. official said on Wednesday.
Gerard Gallucci, the top U.N. official in the flashpoint town of Mitrovica, said an international presence would help "coordinate relations" between Serbs in the north and the ethnic Albanian authorities in Pristina, which will run Kosovo whatever the outcome of negotiations under way in Vienna on the future of the Serbian province.
"Everyone now understands there has to be a transitional period in which the international community -- even though it may be getting out of a U.N. role south of the Ibar River -- may continue to play some similar role in the north for some period of time," the American diplomat told Reuters in an interview.
"I think the U.N. may be best equipped to play this role," he said from his office which overlooks the Ibar river dividing the town's Serbs and Albanians since a war in 1998-99 in which 10,000 Albanians were killed.
Diplomats say the Serbian province of 2 million people, run by the United Nations since 1999, will likely win independence in U.N.-led talks set to end later this year.
The main U.N. mission will bow out once a deal is in place and will be replaced by a slimmed-down European Union operation.
But at least half Kosovo's 100,000 remaining Serbs hold sway in north Mitrovica and the rocky strip of land that runs up to central Serbia. They reject the idea of being ruled from Pristina and have resisted successive U.N. efforts to reintegrate them with the rest of Kosovo.
The major powers say splitting the province in two, as some Serbs advocate, is not an option. They are pushing Albanians to give Serbs greater local self-government, perhaps heading off the mass exodus Serbs threaten should Kosovo split from Serbia.
Gallucci said the international community recognised the "different reality" in northern Kosovo.
Serbs enjoy a level of freedom there envied by thousands of Serbs living in scattered enclaves south of the Ibar, the target of sporadic violence. Around half the Serb population fled a wave of revenge attacks after the war.
Gallucci said some kind of international presence would have to help monitor, administer and coordinate relations between the north and Pristina during a period of transition.
The United Nations has the experience for the job and the EU may have "its hands full with the security and justice role Kosovo-wide".
"It makes sense there be some person overall with some degree of responsibility for the north, whether that person be free-standing or part of a larger mission," said Gallucci.
Mitrovica, a shadow of a once thriving mining town, has come to symbolise the ethnic division which still plagues Kosovo, seven years after NATO expelled Serb forces accused of atrocities against Albanian civilians in its war with separatist guerrillas.
Divided by the Ibar River and patrolled by French NATO troops, Mitrovica is dominated by Serbs in the north and Albanians in the south.
For Serbs, the north represents their last urban centre, linking them to the rest of Serbia. The Albanians say it is the frontline of a Serb bid to divide Kosovo, which Serbs have considered their religious heartland for the past 1,000 years.
Recent moves suggest both sides are edging towards dividing the running of the city.
"You have two incompatible views of Kosovo which then come down to incompatible views of Mitrovica," said Gallucci.