PRISTINA, Serbia, June 6, 2006 (AFP) -
Serb enclaves in northern Kosovo have taken a step towards separation from the rest of the ethnic Albanian-dominated province by cutting ties with the UN administration, media and analysts said Tuesday.
"The north is aiming towards a total secession" from Kosovo, influential daily Koha Ditore wrote, while one foreign analyst warned it was the "joker in the pack" for ongoing talks on the future of the province.
On Monday Serb leaders in the north of the UN-run province broke off relations with the UN mission (UNMIK) and declared a "state of emergency" following a recent wave of violence against Serbs.
The leaders, backed by Serbian authorities in Belgrade, have said that should Kosovo become independent, as its ethnic Albanian majority demands, they want the northern enclaves to secede and be attached to Serbia.
But another Kosovo Serb leader, Marko Jaksic, said the decision was primarily directed to the boycott of Kosovo institutions, dominated by ethnic Albanians, notably the government of the province.
"This decision is a product of bad security situation in the past seven years. We had to say stop to the terror finally," Jaksic told the Belgrade-based Beta news agency.
However, he insisted that the decision "has nothing to do with the negotiations" over the future status of the province.
"It should not have any influence on the talks," said Jaksic.
Since February Serbian and Kosovo Albanian officials have been engaged in the UN-sponsored talks -- expected to be wrapped up by the end of the year -- but they have made little progress.
The ethnic Albanian leaders are pushing for independence, which the Serbian government fiercly opposes although it has offered Kosovo greater autonomy.
"Kosovo is entering its most critical phase. I am afraid the north won't be controlled by Pristina any longer," Behxhet Shala, analyst at a Pristina-based human rights watchdog, said.
"The north is going to make any outcome of the status talks totally dysfunctional. Moreover, given the momentum of the secession there, I wouldn't exclude more dramatic developments," he said.
"Certainly, north Kosovo is becoming one of the biggest challenges of the status process talks," Alex Anderson, head of the Pristina office of the International Crisis Group think-tank, told AFP.
"I think there is an awful lot of work on the ground to make good the (UN's) insistence that there will be no partition of Kosovo," Anderson said.
"In the context of the coming status definition the north is an unpredictable part of Kosovo -- in a way like a joker in the pack," he added.
The Koha Ditore newspaper said that the movements in the north had been received with "political silence in Pristina", while another independent daily, Zeri, reported that the news had drawn concern from the UN administration in Kosovo.
Belgrade and Kosovo Serb leaders have complained for years that the NATO and UN missions running Kosovo have failed to ensure security for non-Albanians, pointing to constant small-scale attacks and a major anti-Serb rampage in 2004.
In a series of attacks against Serbs in the past 10 days, one man was killed and two were seriously injured.
The UN police commissioner said the latest incidents did not seem to be ethnically motivated. UN officials rarely comment on the motive for attacks against Serbs, citing a lack of evidence.
Anderson said the NATO-led peacekeeping mission appeared to be concerned at the Serbs' secession moves, and had announced the reopening of a base near Leposavic, a Serb-dominated town bordering the rest of Serbia.
"A lot of security concerns are going to shift to north Kosovo," particularly at the crucial end of talks and in their aftermath, he said.
At least one third of Kosovo's some 100,000 Serbs are thought to be living in and around the volatile northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica, which is divided between Serbs and ethnic Albanians. The others live in enclaves throughout the province.
Kosovo has been run by the United Nations and NATO since mid-1999, when an alliance's air war drove out Serbian forces and ended a brutal crackdown against separatist guerrillas from the ethnic Albanian majority.