PRISTINA, Serbia (AP) - The U.N. will deploy 500 additional police officers in Kosovo's troubled Serb-dominated north to increase security after a rise in tension, the province's top U.N. police chief said Wednesday.
U.N. officers from elsewhere in Kosovo will be moved to reinforce the police presence in Kosovska Mitrovica and other northern Serb towns near the provincial border, after NATO-led peacekeepers decided a few days ago to reopen an old military base in the area, U.N. police commissioner Kai Vittrup said.
Some international officials fear confrontation between Kosovo's divided communities of ethnic Albanians and Serbs, as talks to determine the province's future status enter a critical phase.
There are some 2,000 U.N. police officers serving in Kosovo, alongside more than 7,000 Kosovo policemen.
The police decision to boost security in the north follows days after local Serbian officials in that area said they would sever ties with provincial institutions that are dominated by the ethnic Albanian majority, following a number of incidents they blamed on ethnic Albanians.
A Kosovo Serb leader on Tuesday suggested possible creation of Serb vigilante groups to guard Serb-populated villages, if attacks continue against the minority group -- a move similar to that of Serb communities in Croatia when Yugoslavia began to unravel in the early 1990s.
Tensions have risen since last week's murder of a Serb youth near the town of Zvecan, which Serbs blamed on ethnic Albanian militants. Police said they had no evidence the slaying was an ethnically motivated crime.
NATO, meanwhile, will deploy some 500 Italian troops, part of the reserve component, to join the 17,500 strong NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo on Friday for a regular one-month rehearsal to prepare them for any potential crisis in the Balkans.
The exercise is aimed at showing NATO's ability to reinforce the peacekeepers currently deployed in Kosovo with its reserve components at short notice, said Col. Pio Sabetta, a spokesman for the NATO-led peacekeepers.
"This rehearsal sends a renewed clear message of NATO's and the international community's strong resolve and commitment to maintain peace and stability in the overall Balkans region," Sabetta said.
Seven years after the end of the war, the ethnic groups remain divided, with Kosovo Serbs mainly living in isolated enclaves fearing attacks by ethnic Albanians.
Talks to determine Kosovo's future are under way in Austria. Western envoys hope that some form of solution will be found by the end of 2006, which should primarily ensure the well-being of minorities, particularly Serbs.
Ethnic Albanians insist the province must become independent, while Serbia is offering broad autonomy, but not independence. Some Kosovo Serb leaders have warned of partition of the Serb-dominated north if independence is imposed upon them.