MITROVICA, Serbia and Montenegro, June 20 (Reuters) - The United Nations extended the opening hours over the main bridge in the divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica on Monday but for the eighth day running not a single car crossed.
U.N. police hope by gradually opening the bridge to civilian vehicles they will help end Mitrovica's bitter Serb-Albanian divide. But as cafes and shops opened for business, dozens of Serbs resumed a quiet campaign to warn off Albanian drivers.
The number of Serb protesters was down from the 300 who gathered when the bridge was opened to traffic for one hour last week, the first time since a 1998-99 war. But still there were no takers as police increased access on Monday to two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon.
Serbs see north Mitrovica as their last urban stronghold in the 90-percent Albanian province, now run by the United Nations. Nearly 200,000 fled in 1999 in fear of Albanian revenge attacks after 78 days of NATO bombing drove Serb forces out, ending a two-year Albanian insurgency.
Serbs fear if security is relaxed they may face attacks by Albanians wanting to take back apartments they fled in the war.
For Albanians, north Mitrovica represents the front line for a possible attempt by Belgrade to partition the province, grabbing swathes of Serb-populated land to the north.
"It must be just symbolic," Joachim Schaek, the town's U.N. police commander, said of the Serb protests. "For security reasons I can't understand it. If terrorists or extremists want to attack north Mitrovica they could do so any time."
Police want to increase access each week until cars can cross 24 hours a day from mid-July. But Serb political leaders in the north argue it is too early for such a sensitive step in a town which has seen the worst of Kosovo's postwar violence.
Mitrovica's main bridge spans the fast-flowing River Ibar, which has formed a natural barrier between Serbs and Albanians for the past six years.
Hundreds of Albanians crossed to the south during the war, which claimed 12,000 mainly Albanian lives. Thousands of Serbs later took refuge in the north from Albanian revenge attacks.
The West plans to open negotiations -- possibly in September -- that Albanians hope will end in formal independence from Serbia after six years of limbo as a de facto U.N. protectorate.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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