BELGRADE, June 1 (Reuters) - NATO said on Thursday it planned to reopen a base in the mainly Serb north of Kosovo, as a decision nears on ethnic Albanian demands for independence for the province and fears grow of an angry Serb reaction.
"For operational reasons we see the need to reuse this installation," spokesman Col. Pio Sabetta told Reuters, without elaborating.
Diplomats say there may be a risk of a unilateral Serb move to partition the United Nations-run province if independence is granted. The United Nations has contingency plans for an exodus of Serbs if Albanians are granted a state of their own.
Sabetta said the last base in the north was closed "a long time ago" but KFOR peacekeepers had maintained "mobile facilities", or patrols.
The Kosovo daily Zeri reported that the strengthening of the military presence in the north was directly linked to fears of unrest when the fate of the southern Serbian province is decided in talks to conclude later this year.
Sabetta said there was "no direct link" to the talks.
He said the 17,000-strong KFOR force planned to reopen an old Belgian base in the north, a strip of land adjoining central Serbia, possibly within the month.
Diplomats say the U.N.-led talks, which began in February, could end in a decision by the U.N. Security Council to amputate Kosovo from Serbia, stranding 100,000 Serbs outside their homeland, outnumbered by two million ethnic Albanians.
The 38-nation NATO-led force has only a minimal presence in the north. Leaders of 50,000 Serbs living there warn they will never consent to live in an independent Kosovo.
Kosovo's ethnic Albanian-dominated government welcomed KFOR's decision to redeploy troops in the north.
"It demonstrates a commitment to maintain security and control of the borders, especially now when Kosovo is going through the definition of its final status," said spokeswoman Ulpiana Lama.
Legally part of Serbia, Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombs drove out Serb forces to halt killings of civilians and ethnic cleansing employed by Belgrade in a two-year war with Albanian separatist guerrillas.
Around half the Serb population fled a wave of revenge attacks with the end of the war and NATO deployment. Serbs in the north have resisted U.N. overtures to integrate them with the rest of Kosovo, now run by Albanians under U.N. supervision.
The talks' U.N. mediators have ruled out autonomy for the Serb minority, fearing moves to partition the province would invite fresh violence and population movements.
The Belgrade daily Politika said on Thursday it had obtained a contingency plan by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to deal with up to 70,000 Serb refugees in the event Kosovo gets independence.
(Additional reporting by Shaban Buza in Pristina)