DOBROSIN BASE, Serbia, April 27 (Reuters) - The Serb colonel guarding the boundary between Serbia and Kosovo has a direct telephone line to the NATO commanders who drove his army out of the breakaway province in a 1999 bombing campaign.
"When we first started talking to the Americans the year after the bombing, things were a bit off," said Colonel Milosav Simovic. "Now cooperation is great. They're professionals. So are we, and we both do what the politicians tell us to do."
On both sides today, the soldiers are waiting.
Eight years after NATO drove out the Serbs, who the West accused of killing ethnic Albanian civilians while fighting a separatist insurgency, the U.N. Security Council is deliberating a plan to make Kosovo independent against Serbia's will.
Dobrosin Base, perched on a ridge overlooking tidy fields and villages that roll on into Kosovo, lies in a region of porous borders that has seen three ethnic conflicts since 1998.
Yugoslav-era Serb tanks point west, sniper holes peek out of the hillside and gnarled turkey oaks shade concealed sentry posts. Armed squads patrol the wooded hills in flak jackets and camouflage.
Somewhere to the west on Friday, a Security Council fact-finding mission was touring Kosovo, behind the 117 km (73 mile) 'administrative line' patrolled constantly by the Serbian Army and the NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping force KFOR, in carefully coordinated patterns.
The U.N. will decide in coming months whether to accept the Western-backed plan and grant Kosovo independence or block the Albanian demand. Whichever way it goes, KFOR and Simovic's 78th Motorised Brigade will have to deal with any trouble.
NATO favours independence, warning that prolonged limbo for Kosovo would invite chaos. Serbia opposes independence, arguing that it would make the region even more volatile.
"We are on our guard. Anything that happens in Kosovo can spill over to here," says the Serb colonel, who speaks to his U.S. counterpart in Kosovo's sprawling Camp Bondsteel every morning to review the security situation.
Dobrosin lies in southern Serbia's Presevo Valley, on the road to Macedonia, the former Yugoslav republic that came close to open civil war in 2001 in a six-month insurgency by ethnic Albanian guerrillas against state security forces.
The valley, predominantly ethnic Albanian, was also the scene of another insurgency in 2000-01 by the Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja (UCPMB), which sought union with Kosovo.
By that time, NATO was firmly installed in Kosovo. Alarmed that an armed Greater Albania movement was getting out of control, it was ready to work with newly-democratic Serbia in putting down the uprising, without the mayhem seen in Kosovo.
The action was textbook, with few civilian casualties. The Serb army now has full control of the area, but treads carefully. Their base was mortared in 2003, and the patrols sweep the roads for mines and roadside bombs twice a day.
People are getting a bit friendlier, says Simovic, "or maybe a little less reserved."
There have been no incidents in the last three years, and the army is working to win over the locals' trust, helping out with infrastructure projects or medical emergencies.
"When we first came, the kids were afraid of us because of the uniforms," Simovic says. "Not anymore. It's almost a peace mission we're on here."
But when Serb army jeeps trundle through the sleepy villages, past shrines to the guerrillas and new mosques under gleaming zinc roofs, the Albanians are stony faced. Only kids come running, beaming at the soldiers' handout of sweets.
If Kosovo is not resolved peacefully, even those smiles will turn sour.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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