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Minn. Guard Patrols a 'Tense' Kosovo
Knight Ridder/Tribune   |  February 19, 2008
Leaders of about 400 members of the Minnesota National Guard deployed to Kosovo as part of a U.N. peacekeeping force describe the atmosphere there as "energized, well-mannered and tense" after the former Serbian province declared independence on Feb. 17.

"The next few days are likely to be tense for Kosovo as the new country awaits international recognition," said Lt. Col. Michael Funk, commander of 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry, a Mankato-based unit.

Minnesota troops are largely stationed in a southeastern portion of Kosovo where independence demonstrations were described as peaceful and limited to some sporadic celebratory gunfire. But Funk said soldiers have been advised to be on higher alert in the coming days.

"There is naturally more tension in the streets since independence has been declared," Funk said in a telephone conference call with reporters.

The unit, which arrived in Kosovo in October, was previously deployed to Kosovo in 2004, when rioting broke out amid increasing tensions between minority Serbs and the majority ethnic Albanians, who make up about 90 percent of the population. During the riots, 19 people died and nearly 900 were wounded, and as many as 10 public buildings and 30 Serbian villages were damaged or destroyed.

The Minnesota unit is now part of about 1,400 U.S. troops stationed in Kosovo to provide stability to the province, which has been under U.N. control since 1999.

The Minnesota unit's mission is largely to focus on Serb minority communities to make sure they feel safe during any transition to independence. The unit has received extensive training in crowd and riot control. "They will know we are there to make sure they live in a safe environment," Funk said.

The Guard is also conducting anti-smuggling programs along the southern borders.

Minnesota is home to a small number of Kosovars. Members of the approximately 22 Kosovar families in the state gathered on Feb. 17 to watch satellite TV and celebrate the independence that they see as more than 500 years in the making.

"It looks like we are born for a second time. Every Kosovar individual is feeling that," said Nazim Saliu of Lakeville, who still has family near Pristina, the capital, and who hopes to retire to Kosovo. He has been in the United States for nine years and is a citizen.

Saliu, a barber, said he was on a flight recently from Vienna to Pristina with Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci on board. Saliu asked Thaci about the impact of independence and Thaci assured him that all groups would be fairly represented. Thaci was part of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership charged with treason by Serbia on Feb. 18 for proclaiming the province independent.

"We will never do to them whatever they did to us," Saliu said of the Serbs. "I'm sure 100 percent of the people who live in Kosovo are going to have their own rights."

But Washington County District Judge David Doyscher, who served as a judge for the United Nations in Kosovo in 2004, said he has fears for Kosovo's Serb minority. Doyscher worked on war crimes prosecutions and trials related to the 2004 riots and helped to craft the legal framework for the province. Two other Minnesota judges remain in Kosovo as part of the same U.N. program.

While Doyscher sees Kosovo's independence as ultimately the best thing for the region, hundreds of years of ethnic tensions are likely to continue, he said. Serbs regard portions of Kosovo as the heartland of their culture and have been resistant to giving up control of the region.

"I'm quite concerned about the Serb minorities. They don't live a very good life and they are very fearful," Doyscher said. "I don't know that the centuries-old problems of ethnic hatred have disappeared because they are independent.

"They have long memories, that's for sure."

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