There was concern the Sunday funeral of the children - allegedly hounded to death by Serbs - could re-ignite smouldering communal hatred.

But the NATO-led peace force left nothing to chance in the village of Cabra.

The location was guarded by hundreds of troops from Denmark, Germany, Pakistan, scores of riot police from Italy and squadrons of Kosovo's own police force.

They were backed up by an overhead surveillance drone, three helicopters and German sniper teams.

NATO sources said up to 8000 Kosovo Albanians came to pay their respects and about 200 Serbs watched the ceremony from their adjacent village on the other side of the Ibar river.

Peace test

The funeral was the first test of a fragile peace restored to Kosovo after ethnic violence between Serbs and Albanians in which 28 people were killed and 3600 Serbs driven out, leaving many homes and churches in flames.

Kosovo Albanian leaders had called for a dignified ceremony free of political overtones, and NATO urged those with no ties to the bereaved families to stay away in order to reduce the risk of new violence.

Last week's clashes were the worst since a wave of Albanian revenge attacks which followed NATO's bombing campaign in 1999 to end Serbian forces' repression of the largely Muslim Albanians.

"Your dignified stand makes us proud and we share your pride. You have set an example for all Kosovars of how to show dignity at a difficult time"

Bajram Rexhepi,
Kosovo Albanian Prime Minister

The burial took place in a hillside cemetery in wooded hills by the valley of the fast-flowing Ibar, where the boys drowned on Tuesday, allegedly after being chased by Serb youths angry at the drive-by shooting of a Serb teenager in central Kosovo.

A column of mourners followed the two coffins draped in the red-and black, double-headed eagle flag of Albania.

'Dignified stand' 

"Your dignified stand makes us proud and we share your pride," Kosovo Albanian Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi told the grieving families. "You have set an example for all Kosovars of how to show dignity at a difficult time."

A third boy was missing, believed dead. A fourth who survived said they were chased by Serbs and had panicked, attempting to swim the turbulent river. UN police had neither confirmed nor contested the account, which some Serbs disbelieved.

But the UN and NATO said that, in any case, the violence unleashed appeared far more organised than Kosovo's past pattern of spontaneous, eye-for-an-eye vengeance attacks.

In case spillover emotions sparked clashes after the funeral in the nearby flashpoint city of Mitrovica, a truckload of Nepalese Gurkha troops from the British army was sent in to reinforce troops from France, Poland and the United States.

Cabra, a dirt-road village of 1400 inhabitants, was razed by the Serbs in 1999 with up to 25 killed. It has been reconstructed with Japanese help.

In the latest violence, it was the turn of the Serbs. One of their villages not far off had 80 homes burned down last week as residents fled.