By Gethin Chamberlain in Mitrovica, Kosovo, and Bojan Pancevski
Tens of thousands of Serbs are preparing to flee the troubled Balkan province of Kosovo because of fears that the region is on the brink of a devastating war.
Talks to find a political solution to the future of the region collapsed last week, eight years after Nato intervened to end violence that left more than 2,000 dead.
With Kosovo's new Albanian-led administration poised to declare independence from Serbia, the old hatreds are resurfacing. Many Serbs - who account for less than 10 per cent of the population - are packing their bags, fearing a new wave of "ethnic cleansing" at the hands of the Albanian majority.
In the village of Babin Most, a Serb enclave about seven miles north of Pristina, the capital, there are about 200 Serb houses and just 50 Albanian. But the Serbs still feel vulnerable because Albanian villages surround them. "I'm afraid there will be violence. There is fear here," said a 17-year-old Serb, Marija Nikolic, a student nurse.
"Albanians hate Serbs because of the war. If there was independence I wouldn't have any future here. I would not be free and I wouldn't be able to get a job."
She said the Serbs feared they would lose everything. "Who will buy our house?" she said. "It won't be possible to sell it. The Albanians know they will get it anyway."
Kosovo was torn apart in 1999 after the Serb leader - the late Slobodan Milosevic -rejected an internationally brokered solution to the tensions between the Serbs and the Albanians, who comprise 90 per cent of the two million population. When the fighting ended, many Serbs abandoned their homes and left the province, while others moved north of the Ibar river, closer to Serbia proper. Nato troops moved in to police a fragile peace.
Colonel Niels Toenning, deputy commander of Nato troops in northern Kosovo, said independence would lead to a Serb exodus. "It is likely that the Serbs will leave," he said.
The town of Mitrovica stands on the border between the two ethnic groups, straddling the Ibar river. Even within the Serb half, north of the Ibar, some people are considering leaving. Tanja, 25, a medical student who lives in a building overlooking the river, said all her friends had packed their bags and were keeping their passports to hand. "There is no future here for us. All this will become Albanian land some day," she said.
Some of her fellow Serbs are pinning their hopes on the government in Belgrade riding to their rescue. Last week, a Serb defence minister, Dragan Sutanovac, claimed that there were no plans to intervene militarily, but Rade Negojevc, an official in the Serbian ministry responsible for Kosovo, said: "The Serbian army will react to protect its citizens. If people's lives are in danger they will enter Pristina. It would only take a few hours," he said.
He claimed they would not be deterred by the presence of Nato peacekeepers in Kosovo. "How will Nato seal the border? They may have tanks, but not more than we do. Their forces are no match for the Serbian army."
But Bajram Rexhepi, Kosovo's former premier, said any intervention by Serb forces would mean war. "We are ready to pay any price. We will not accept any partition. We will continue as guerrillas if the international community fails to do its duty," he said.
Nato was last week concerned enough to move more of its 17,000 troops in Kosovo northward and, if violence breaks out, they may be joined by up to 500 British troops. From next month, Britain is due to take over responsibility for providing the reserve force to reinforce Kosovo's Nato contingent - which includes units from America, France and Denmark. Britain has about 150 personnel in Kosovo in headquarters roles.
Meanwhile, Serb hardliners in Mitrovica are mounting their own campaign to keep the Albanians at bay, keeping a constant watch on the main bridge over the river.
"We hear that Albanian paramilitaries are training in the woods and that they have weapons and uniforms," one said. "We need to keep watch to make sure that nothing happens."
The Serbs say that they have weapons, stashed away out of the reach of the Nato troops, which they will use if war comes, and they are bolstered by their belief that they have the backing of Russia, which is keen to secure Serbia as a loyal satellite.
The northern half of Mitrovica is festooned with pictures of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. North of the bridge, a banner reads: "Russia help us." But in the flats overlooking it, Petar Milosavlevic, a 69-year-old Serb, despaired of those who talked of violence.
"I was born here and I will die here. If there would be any new violence, I only wish that the first bullet would kill me and not some young person," he said. "We all used to live together - Serbs, Albanians, Croats, Roma - and it was all good until the politicians messed things up. They poisoned people's minds."