June 28, 2005

Under U.N. guard, Serbs mark epic Kosovo battle

By Matthew Robinson

GAZIMESTAN, Serbia and Montenegro (Reuters) - Guarded byheavily-armed U.N. police, a few hundred Serbs gathered incentral Kosovo on Tuesday to commemorate the 616-year-oldbattle at the heart of their claim to the mountain-ringedprovince.

The turnout was a far cry from that of 1989, when SlobodanMilosevic delivered a speech full of nationalist rhetoric to acrowd of 500,000, packed on to the sloping heath where theSerbs fell to the Turks in 1389.

The defeat on "The Field of the Blackbirds" opened thedoors to centuries of Ottoman Turk rule. It remains the pivotalevent in Serb history and central to the Serb claim to Kosovoas their Jerusalem.

"We have come to keep the tradition alive," said Ljubinka,a Serb pensioner who made the 350-km (218- mile) trip fromBelgrade to see Patriarch Pavle, the head of the SerbianOrthodox Church, hold the traditional St Vitus Day service forfallen Serbs.

This year, the sun-baked fields below the toweringGazimestan monument were almost empty.

Long grass bent in the breeze and a few ethnic Albanianswatched from a distance as Polish and American police officersfrom the U.N. force escorted buses and cars carrying Serbs tothe site, now ringed with razor-wire and guarded by NATO.

Kosovo's 90-percent ethnic Albanian majority hopes St VitusDay 2005 will be the last in a Kosovo still formally part ofSerbia but run by the United Nations since 1999.

In 1989, Milosevic exploited the mythic status of the 14thCentury battle to launch his bid for control over Yugoslavia.

In words that would be read back to him as evidence at hiswar crimes trial, the former communist apparatchik warned Serbsthey once again faced a fight. "There are not battles witharms, but such battles cannot be excluded," he said.

War engulfed Yugoslavia two years later and, by 1999,Serbia had lost control over Kosovo after a 78-day NATO bombingcampaign to drive out Milosevic's forces, accused of killing10,000 ethnic Albanian civilians and expelling 800,000.

An estimated 180,000 Serbs fled, fearing revenge attacks byethnic Albanians bitter at years of repression. About 100,000remain, many in enclaves watched closely by NATO peacekeepers.

Kosovo has been a de facto U.N. protectorate ever since.

In 2001, Serb reformers in Belgrade chose St Vitus Day toextradite Milosevic to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in TheHague, where he is now standing trial.

The West plans to open negotiations later this year whichthe 90-percent Albanian majority hopes will bring formalindependence. Serbia says independence is impossible.