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BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia is telling Serbs in Kosovo to ignore an Albanian declaration of independence early next year, raising the prospect of an ethnic partition of the breakaway province that the West has long ruled out.
Serbs dominate a thin slice of northern Kosovo, frustrating efforts by leaders of Kosovo's 90-percent Albanian majority and their U.N. overseers to extend control over the entire territory of Serbia's southern province.
Kosovo's 2 million Albanians are expected to declare independence in the first months of 2008, almost nine years since NATO drove out Serb forces to halt the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in a Serb counter-insurgency war.
The Albanians have Western backing after almost two years of failed Serb-Albanian negotiations. But the flag-raising is unlikely to extend beyond the Ibar river that slices through the flashpoint town of Mitrovica, forming a natural boundary between Serbs in the north and Albanians in the south.
Beyond formally rejecting Kosovo's secession, Serbia promises to "intensify" a network of parallel structures that service the 120,000 remaining Serbs. It has opened a government office in north Mitrovica, to U.N. accusations of "provocation".
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, promoting a resolution implicitly rejecting EU and NATO membership if the two recognise Kosovo, told parliament this week Serbs in Kosovo "should ignore any unilateral declaration as an illegal act."
Cabinet minister Mladjan Dinkic was more explicit on Friday. Western recognition of Kosovo "would certainly open the question of Serbs living in Kosovo and it would lead to the necessary integration (into Serbia) of the territories where Serbs live," he said.
Dinkic, Serbia's economy minister and a pro-Western reformer, told the Belgrade daily Blic that Kosovo's secession would also reopen the question of the Serb Republic half of neighbouring Bosnia "and its integration with Serbia."
Serbia has hinted broadly at the possible breakup of postwar Bosnia, in a tactic meant to scare the West off Kosovo.
But Albanians in Kosovo are also not beyond using the taboo prospect of "Greater" ethnic states to drive their argument for independence and warn Serbia to keep its hands off the north.
"Albanians live in four countries other than Albania," outgoing Kosovo prime minister Agim Ceku was quoted as saying this week, in reference to Kosovo and Serbia's southern Presevo Valley, western Macedonia and Montenegro.
"If Kosovo is partitioned along ethnic lines, those would want to discuss uniting with Albania," he said.
Talk of a Greater Albania, officially rejected by Albania and played down by most ethnic Albanian leaders, is unlikely to go down well in Western capitals. It would appear to justify their fear of partition as an almost certain trigger for Balkan land swaps and forced population movements.
But the failure of the Western states with the lion's share of responsibility for running Kosovo to extend their control over the renegade Serb north means they will be faced with the territory's de facto partition whether they like it or not.
Half of Kosovo's Serb community lives in scattered enclaves south of the Ibar, but the rest are in the north with their backs to Serbia proper. It has been off-limits to Albanian leaders since NATO peacekeepers deploying in 1999 set down a dividing line at the Ibar to separate the fighting factions.
Serbia has cemented that divide ever since.