The U.S. fears that Europe will cave in to Serb pressure for Kosovo to be partitioned in a move which diplomats warn could trigger ethnic violence.

U.S. embassy cables released by WikiLeaks show that senior Serbian officials have privately told Washington and the EU that the government of Kosovo will never gain full control of the contested territory — and indirectly pushed for partition.

Senior U.S. officials are fiercely opposed to what they see as Serbian President Boris Tadic’s concerted campaign to partition Kosovo, which, if successful, would defeat a decade of American foreign policy. The officials condemned European “vacillation and weakness” on the contest.

Eleven years after Nato went to war in the Balkans to bomb Serbian forces out of Kosovo, and almost three years after Kosovo declared its independence as a majority ethnic Albanian state, Serbian intransigence and its daily efforts to entrench control over the northern part of Kosovo risk reigniting the ethnic conflict, the U.S. embassy has warned Washington.

“Failure to act soon means losing northern Kosovo and will reopen the Pandora’s box of ethnic conflict that defined the 1990s,” the then U.S. ambassador to Kosovo, Christopher Dell, wrote this year. “The time is right to end the years of drift on the north and to alter the dynamic of a hardening partition between the north and the rest of Kosovo... The current situation is untenable and deteriorating. The aim is to stop the rot.” Kosovo goes to the polls this weekend in a keenly awaited general election that represents a further milestone in its attempt to become a fully fledged independent state. Partition has been a strong campaign issue, with analysts and diplomats anxious to see how many Kosovo Serbs vote.

Senior officials in Belgrade warned that any attempt to impose integration in northern Kosovo around the Serbian stronghold of Mitrovica would require Nato forces and destabilise the region.

Jovan Ratkovic, Mr. Tadic’s foreign policy adviser and the key official handling negotiations over Kosovo with western diplomats, told the new U.S. ambassador in Belgrade that the Serbs of northern Kosovo would never accept government by Albanians.

“These people have never lived with Albanians, have never felt themselves part of Kosovo and won’t accept rule by Pristina,” Mr. Ratkovic told the U.S. ambassador, Mary Warlick, in February this year. “Belgrade is not trying to change the reality on the ground for Kosovar Albanians, but changing the reality for Kosovo Serbs would also be destabilising.” Mr. Ratkovic added that the U.S. and the EU were considering “military intervention” to forcibly incorporate northern Kosovo.

A month earlier Mr. Ratkovic laid out a scenario tantamount to partition to Robert Cooper, Britain’s EU troubleshooter on the Balkans and Iran, and adviser to Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief: “Ratkovic more explicitly told Cooper that while Belgrade would need to accept that it would not govern Kosovo again, Kosovo would have to come to the realisation that it would not effectively be able to extend its governance north of the Ibar river” at Mitrovica, another cable says.

While Serbia publicly and constantly affirms that it will never recognise an independent Kosovo, which it views as sacred historical Serbian territory, the cables reveal Belgrade’s acknowledgment that Albanian-controlled Kosovo is lost and that Mr. Tadic’s ambitions of joining the EU will suffer if he is inflexible.

“Tadic reportedly told Cooper that he recognised that there needed to be a degree of clarity and finality to any outcome, cognisant that the EU would be unwilling to accept another ‘Cyprus-like’ state as a member.” Until 2008, Serbia was ruled by nationalists under Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who cemented control of northern Kosovo and vowed no surrender. Hopes have been high in the west that under Mr. Tadic’s pro-western democrats a settlement could be reached. After EU prodding in September, Mr. Tadic dropped a U.N. campaign aimed at invalidating Kosovo’s independence and reopening negotiations on its status, and agreed to EU-mediated talks with Pristina.

But Washington has been told by its embassy that the Tadic government may be pursuing the same policies as its hardline predecessor: “Though the pro-western government of Tadic is an improvement on its predecessor in many ways, the general parameters of Serbia’s Kosovo policy remain unchanged,” the U.S. embassy in Pristina advised the U.S. Vice-President, Joe Biden, before a visit to Kosovo last year.

“The north has become a proxy battleground for two differing visions of the region’s future: for Serbs and for Belgrade (notably for President Tadic himself) it represents that part of Kosovo most likely to be retained by Serbia in a partition scenario as a precursor to Serbia’s accession into the EU, while for ethnic Albanians in Kosovo retention of the north remains the symbolic key to proving Kosovo’s legitimate sovereignty.” This year, the U.S. reported that Tadic’s policy on northern Kosovo had become “increasingly aggressive”. “An impending frozen conflict in northern Kosovo remains the greatest threat to a safe and secure environment in Kosovo in the near and medium terms.” The region was a “home base for illegal Serbian parallel structures and a region rife with smuggling and organised crime. Kosovo institutions have exercised little control there since 1999.”

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