Tensions in Kosovo have re-highlighted the abysmal gap between Albanians and Serbs and the difficulty of achieving reconciliation in the former Serbian province after years of fighting stalled.

Last Sunday, a Kosovo police officer was killed in an ambush by a group of Serbs, followed by a shooting between police special forces and the armed group, which killed three militants who had taken refuge in an Orthodox monastery in the village of Banjska near the border.

After clashes in northern Kosovo, where the Serb minority is concentrated, police announced the arrest of three people involved in the attack. It also seized quantities of weapons it said were enough to arm hundreds.

On Friday, raids continued in this area, and members of the special forces carried out searches of properties belonging to those suspected of masterminding the operation.

The moves were condemned by Belgrade, which still refuses to recognise the independence declared in 2008 for the former Serbian province.

The Serbian Office for Kosovo called the raids and arrests a "brutal and exaggerated show of force", using special forces "heavily armed to the bone".

On the other hand, the White House revealed on Friday that Serbia has deployed infantry, armored vehicles and artillery at the border, calling on them to withdraw them and defuse tensions.

NATO has also indicated its readiness to strengthen the presence of the KFOR force deployed in Kosovo in order to "face the emerging situation".

Fear of repression

In the ethnically diverse northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica, Serb residents expressed concern about the increased police presence and fears of possible additional crackdowns that would further strain the already tense situation.

One Serb, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "I am afraid of the repression we have seen before. A policeman was killed and that's terrible. Now I can only predict what will happen next."

The 38-year-old continued, "What I want is just to live a normal life. "I think that after what happened, the whole community (Serbs in northern Kosovo) will be treated as if they had a hand in what happened."

In the predominantly Albanian capital, Pristina, residents blame the Serbian government for recent events, stressing that peace will not be possible unless Belgrade corrects its mistakes.

Mevluta Hoksha, a 64-year-old resident of Pristina, said: "Serbia bears responsibility for what happened. Reconciliation with Serbs in the north is possible," she said, noting that the Albanians do not mind living with them, "but they will not want to."

Sunday's clashes came nearly a week after the latest round of talks between Kosovo and Serb officials failed to achieve a breakthrough in a bid to improve relations between the two sides.

Although the talks have continued and have been accompanied by calls for a reduction in tensions, analysts have suggested that the latest clash is likely to be a nail in the coffin of chances for real reconciliation.

Writing in a publication of the Carnegie Center for Europe, researcher Dimitar Peshev writes, "The more incidents of this kind occur, the less likely it is that Serbia and Kosovo will be willing or able to compromise. The EU will not be able to solve the problem, it may only be able to manage or contain it."

Causes of re-stress

The tension in northern Kosovo dates back to months after Prime Minister Albin Kurti decided in May to appoint four Albanians to head local councils in 4 predominantly Serb towns, after they boycotted elections held in their areas.

The decision was followed by demonstrations by the Serb minority, while Belgrade arrested three Kosovo police officers. Clashes took place between the latter and Serb demonstrators who provoked riots, from which members of the Atlantic force "Kfour" were not spared.

The latest tension in the north is the latest in a series of events to shake the region since its declaration of independence in 2008.

Serbia, backed by allies Russia and China, still refuses to recognize Kosovo's declared independence in 2008, after a bloody war in the <>s between Serb forces and Albanian rebels that ended with NATO intervention against Belgrade.

Although the war is over, years of talks between the parties have not made any tangible progress towards a lasting and lasting peace.

Agim Moloko, an economist in Pristina, said reconciliation was possible if repeated provocations stopped.

But he stressed that the secession of the Serb-majority northern region in northern Kosovo was not on the table. "The north is part of Kosovo, and it will remain part of Kosovo."