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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Heat Holds Tensions in Check in Kosovo

SKOROBISTE, Serbia -- In the sweltering heat of the Balkan summer, stray dogs cannot even muster a bark as a NATO foot patrol makes its way through the hilltop village of Skorobiste in southwest Kosovo.

Locals barely raise an eyebrow at the assault rifles carried by the seven-man German unit, which ends an uneventful tour with a ritual dishing-out of sweets to grinning children.

If Kosovo's Albanians are angry that their quest for independence from Serbia is stalled, they hide it well in Skorobiste. But Colonel Hans Werner Patzki has no doubt that the summer lethargy across the breakaway province could quickly give way to trouble.

"End of September it will start, perhaps not at a high level," said Patzki, the German deputy commander for the south of NATO's 16,000-strong KFOR peace force in Kosovo.

"It is good now. But later it will be cold and raining, and they will be sitting in a bar with lots of time to think about all the bad things in the world," Patzki said back at the local NATO base, in the town of Prizren.

A new diplomatic effort started in Vienna on Thursday to break the deadlock between Kosovo Albanian and Serb leaders over the fate of the 90 percent ethnic Albanian province. Eight years after NATO bombs drove out Serbian forces carrying out ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Belgrade remains resolutely opposed to its independence.

With Serbia backed by United Nations Security Council veto-holder Russia, expectations of a deal during the scheduled four months of talks are low. Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku predicts that the province will declare independence by year's end, regardless.

For now, few in Kosovo get worked up about politics, with temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius and the towns full of a visiting diaspora flush with cash earned in Germany, France or Belgium.

The lull will continue a few weeks longer as villages like Skorobiste concentrate on gathering this year's harvest, suffering from dire water shortages in much of the province.

Yet a few incidents are already giving rise to jitters. A breakout this month of seven inmates ranked as dangerous from a top-security prison added to Western concerns that the province's penitentiary is unfit for the prisoners it is holding. The UN mission in charge of Kosovo has demanded an independent inquiry.

Concern is rising among the province's 100,000 minority Serbs, many of whom doubt that NATO and international law enforcers can adequately assure their safety.

The European Union, due to take over policing tasks from the United Nations after a status settlement, says its 1,850-strong force will include four anti-riot units totaling 500 officers.

"If the environment is more hostile, we have to see whether that has implications for the number of people we have on the ground," said Casper Klynge, the head of the EU Planning Team for Kosovo.

Some Western officials fear that if Kosovo parliamentary elections go ahead as planned in November, campaigning could spark trouble as candidates whip up frustration to win votes.

Others point to Dec. 10, when mediators are to report to the Security Council on the latest bid to reach a compromise. If no progress is made, they fear, Kosovo's patience could snap.

"The second the perspective of a solution is lost, we have to be very careful," Klynge said.