Dozens of Serb officers have deserted the Kosovo police force since the new state declared independence, snubbing ethnic Albanian leaders and shattering the only institution in which real cooperation existed between the ethnic groups.
Some 170 of the force's Serb 800 officers have either quit or not shown up for work since the Feb. 17 declaration, police officials said Thursday. Dozens of others have threatened to follow suit.
Authorities in Belgrade have been encouraging Kosovo Serbs to boycott the fledgling government's institutions. The desertions are a setback for Kosovo's U.N. mission, which has poured millions of dollars and years of effort into creating and training the force.
"We have enough police to handle anything," said Luis Cisneros, a spokesman for the U.N. police. "But we want everybody to be happy, both Serbs and Albanians. That's the main point."
The 7,000-strong multiethnic police force had been praised as one of few successful cases of Kosovo's Serbs and ethnic Albanians working together. But the police have been under strong pressure since the declaration of independence, which was followed by violent protests by Serbs.
"They see us as traitors," said Capt. Stojan Denic, 44, a Serb and police commander who lives in the village of Kusce, about 40 miles southeast of the capital, Pristina.
"So we decided to end cooperation with the regional command," Denic told The Associated Press from outside his home. Down the street, dozens of Serbs in Kosovo police uniforms crowded around a table drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes as they boycotted the force.
Nightly blasts, violence continues
Also Thursday, an evening explosion shattered the uneasy calm in the ethnically divided northern city of Kosovska Mitrovica, damaging two U.N. vehicles. No one was hurt, police said.
Serbia intends to take legal action against governments that recognized Kosovo's move, and the government voted Thursday to form a team to determine which international courts would have jurisdiction.
Making good on its pledge to try to block Kosovo from joining international organizations, Serbia's foreign minister walked out of a meeting of his counterparts in Sofia, Bulgaria, when a delegate from Kosovo took the floor to speak.
"Kosovo will not be a member of the United Nations; it will not be a member of the OSCE, Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told delegates at the meeting, referring to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "And as such, it will not belong to the world community of sovereign nations."
New nation emerges
But the groundwork for greater international integration was being laid in Vienna, Austria, where the International Steering Group for Kosovo — made up of representatives from countries backing Kosovo's independence — held its inaugural meeting. The group will help guide the new nation.
The estimated 100,000 Serbs who remain in Kosovo have ignored Kosovo's declaration and threatened to set up their own institutions in Kosovo's northern tip, where most of the minority Serbs live.
The vast majority of Kosovo's population is ethnic Albanian. Serbs represent just 10 percent of the region's 2 million people, but they view Kosovo as the cradle of their culture and Orthodox Christian faith.
Reshat Maliqi, an ethnic Albanian and senior police official, said he hoped those Serbs who walked off the job will change their minds.
"We expect at least a part of them to continue with their work," Maliqi said. "But even that would be optimistic."