Kosovar Serbs Clash With the Police
BRUSSELS — Serbs in the northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica fired weapons and threw grenades at international peacekeepers on Monday, wounding dozens of police officers and NATO troops. The clash was the worst violence since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on Feb. 17.
The episode began at dawn when United Nations police officers raided a United Nations courthouse that had been seized by Serbs on Friday, and arrested 53 people. Capt. Veton Elshani, a spokesman for the Kosovo Police Service, said in a telephone interview from Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, that several hundred Serbs responded by shooting at the police and throwing rocks and grenades, and that the police then used stun guns and tear gas.
The clashes, on the anniversary of violence four years ago that left 19 people dead, were part of a campaign by Serbs to make Pristina’s administration of northern Kosovo untenable and to force the de facto partition of the territory.
The escalation of violence in the Serb-dominated northern part of Kosovo has become a test of international resolve to hold the newborn nation together. It also poses a quandary for the NATO alliance and its 16,000 troops in Kosovo, which have a mandate to ensure the security of the province, but which are wary of spilling blood and becoming mired in a conflict that invariably trips over politics.
Captain Elshani said the rioters had freed 21 of the detained Serbs by blocking United Nations cars carrying them. At least four United Nations and NATO vehicles were burned, he said, and the police were eventually forced to pull out of northern Mitrovica, leaving NATO troops to face the rioters.
A senior NATO official in Brussels, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not have clearance to discuss the issue for attribution, said the military could not be used to prevent every attempt by Serbs to impose partition on Kosovo, adding, “There is a slippery slope between what is a political issue and what is a security issue.”
Mitrovica is divided between ethnic Albanians, who live south of the Ibar River, and Serbs, who live to the north. The city has long been a flash point for violence in Kosovo, which was placed under United Nations administration in 1999 after NATO intervened to halt the repression of ethnic Albanians, who make up 95 percent of Kosovo’s population, by the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.
The northern part of Kosovo already has parallel Serbian institutional structures governing health and education policy, and a majority of Serbs do not recognize the authority of the new government in Pristina.
Over the past few weeks, Serbian protesters have tried to undermine Pristina’s authority in the north by setting fire to United Nations border posts, disrupting rail lines, attacking European Union and United Nations judicial and administrative offices, and preventing ethnic Albanian judges and lawyers from entering their offices in northern Mitrovica.
NATO and the United Nations issued a joint statement in Pristina on Monday, condemning the “lethal violence, including direct fire by a mob.” NATO officials said 22 Poles and 15 Ukrainians belonging to the United Nations police were wounded Monday, along with 9 French members of the NATO force. At least 70 Serbian demonstrators, including one struck in the eye by a bullet, were wounded, The Associated Press reported.
The raid to take back the courthouse on Monday had added resonance because of the anniversary of bloody riots in 2004 that erupted after three ethnic Albanian boys in northern Kosovo died under mysterious circumstances. Nineteen people, including Serbs and Albanians, were killed during the rioting, which caught NATO off guard and became a cautionary example of how a lack of readiness could undermine international efforts to keep Kosovo’s precarious peace.
NATO officials say that the alliance has learned from its mistakes and that its 16,000-member peacekeeping force can assure Kosovo’s security. Yet NATO officials say that Serbia’s attempt to force a partition presents a difficult challenge.
“Our mandate is to ensure a safe and secure environment and to assure the freedom of movement throughout all of Kosovo,” James Appathurai, a NATO spokesman, said Monday. “But NATO is not a police force or the lead political body in Kosovo, so let’s not ask of NATO what it cannot do.”
NATO officials say privately they are increasingly concerned that the United Nations does not have adequate resources to deal with the partition threat. Hundreds of Serbian police officers have recently left Kosovo’s multiethinic police force and pledged their allegiance to Serbia.
Peter Feith, the European Union’s special representative to Kosovo, said in an interview this month that the European Union was determined not to allow partition to become a political reality, and would work to ensure that Kosovo remained a multiethnic country in which both groups lived side by side. The European Union is soon to take over administration of Kosovo from the United Nations.
But many senior European Union officials admit privately that if the Serbs continue to push for partition, there is little the European Union can do to prevent it. Countries like Britain or France could protest formally at the United Nations Security Council. But such appeals would face resistance from Russia, which has a veto on the Council. Russia is an ally of Serbia and says that Kosovo’s independence is a breach of international law.
In Belgrade, the Serbian capital, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica on Monday condemned “the use of force against Serbs who are opposing the introduction of a false state on Serbia’s territory.” Accusing NATO of “implementing a policy of force against Serbia,” he said he was consulting with Russia on a possible joint response.
Serbian hard-liners are eager to invite Russian peacekeepers into northern Kosovo. But Western diplomats say such a move would undermine the European, United Nations and NATO missions while aggravating tensions.
On Monday, Kosovo’s deputy prime minister, Hajredin Kuqi, called on NATO not to end its operations, and he defended its actions. “There can be no compromise when it comes to the rule of law,” he said.