MITROVICA, Serbia, June 20 (Reuters) - Serbs in northern Kosovo have recruited hundreds of former Yugoslav army soldiers to defend them from attacks by ethnic Albanians pushing for independence for the province, Serb officials said on Tuesday.
It is the latest sign of resistance among the Serb minority in the United Nations-run province to the drive for independence by the 2 million-strong Albanian majority. U.N.-led talks look likely to give Kosovo some form of independence before year-end.
Officials in the north, home to 50,000 Serbs, said 385 former Yugoslav reservists had been employed by municipalities to "organise defence in the event of extremist violence".
"We have been forced into such a move because of police ineffectiveness, and the cover-up of crimes and their perpetrators," Zvecan mayor Dragisa Milovic told Reuters. Officially, the "Civil Defence Service" will not be armed.
The north, adjacent to central Serbia, cut ties last month with Albanian authorities in the capital -- a move some analysts said was a precursor to a Serb bid to partition the province.
Underlining Serb fears, police said a 68-year-old Serb refugee who returned to Kosovo having fled after the war had been found dead in his home in the western town of Klina. A police source said he had been shot. The motive was unclear.
Serb troops were forced from Kosovo in 1999 when NATO bombed to halt their killing and ethnic cleansing of ethnic Albanian civilians in a two-year war with separatist guerrillas.
Around half the Serb population fled a wave of revenge attacks. The 100,000 who stayed live in enclaves isolated from the ethnic Albanian majority.
Kosovo's outgoing U.N. governor, Soren Jessen-Petersen, told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that Kosovo Albanian leaders had made strides in improving the rights and security of the remaining Serbs -- something U.N. and Western diplomats say is vital to clinching independence.
The Serbs say this is a lie and blame a recent spate of violence on Albanians bent on driving them out.
Direct talks on Kosovo's fate began in February in Vienna under U.N. mediation. The crunch issue of status should be on the table in late July, with Western powers determined to end seven years of limbo in Kosovo by the end of the year.
Diplomats say the West favours independence, but fear a bid by Serbs in the north to partition Kosovo, a move seen certain to bring Albanian retaliation likely to force thousands to flee.
The U.N. has contingency plans for the exodus of 50,000 Serbs if Kosovo splits from Serbia. The 17,000-strong NATO peace force said this month it would bolster mobile units in the north by reopening a military base there.
(Additional reporting by Shaban Buza)