- European Union - independence - Kosovo - Serbia
AFP - Kosovo's Serbs watched on with distrust and even animosity Tuesday as the European Union formally began its justice mission in the disputed Balkan territory.
"I don't expect anything positive from an occupying power. As far as I'm concerned, they are all the same," said Dragomir Vukovic, a history professor in the Serb enclave of Gracanica.
"The same people who bombed us now are coming as friends," the 62-year-old said in reference to NATO's 1999 bombing campaign that ended a crackdown by Serbian forces against ethnic Albanian separatists.
As he spoke, a team of police from the mission known as EULEX entered a station in Gracanica, one of the main seats of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo.
Kosovo, with a 90-percent ethnic Albanian population, declared independence from Serbia on February 17. It has since been recognised by more than 50 countries, including most of the European Union and the United States.
The EU bloc's biggest ever civilian operation officially took over Tuesday from the UN mission UNMIK, which administered Kosovo since the end of its 1998-1999 war.
As the EULEX police team was settling in at the Gracanica police station, EULEX chief Yves de Kermabon informed Kosovo Albanian authorities that his mission had began successfully.
"We are taking over from UNMIK the responsibility, in close cooperation with the government, of the rule of law Kosovo-wide," said the French general and former commander of NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo.
But one of Vukovic's friends, who only gave his name as Ranko, has already written off the chances of EULEX making a difference to the lives of Serbs, who number little more than 100,000 in Kosovo.
"They are the same as UNMIK. I don't think we'll benefit from them," Ranko said. "All of them support (Kosovo's) independence in one way or another."
The deployment of the 1,900-strong EU mission came on market day in Gracanica, with several farmers observing the changeover from stalls they manned in the main street of the enclave.
"I would like to see Serbian police in Kosovo, as it was before the war," said 67-year-old Smilja Tankosic, sitting behind baskets filled with onions and beans.
"Foreigners cannot do as good a job as your own people."
The EULEX police representative in charge of Gracanica, Imre Pallagi, said his mission was to create an "accountable, sustainable and transparent police force free from political interference."
"I am coming from the Budapest police where I was in charge of organised crime coming from this region," he said, referring to a problem expected to be one of the mission's biggest challenges.
But judging by the first reactions from the local Serb community, EULEX police officers face a difficult task of just winning over their confidence.
Even though the Serbian government gave EULEX the green light to deploy in Kosovo, it might not be enough to foster a friendly environment for the justice mission among the Kosovo minority.
"That was the biggest mistake by Belgrade so far, believe me. I am a historian and know it," Vukovic said. "I am afraid that the Kosovo Serbs will now pay the biggest price for such a mistake."