Serbs battle U.N., NATO in Kosovo

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Dozens are hurt in the worst fighting since the fledgling nation seceded from Serbia in February.
By Behar Zogiani and Tracy Wilkinson, Special to The Times
March 18, 2008
PRISTINA, KOSOVO — Serbs opposed to Kosovo’s independence battled U.N. and NATO forces Monday in the divided town of Mitrovica, stoking fears of a new regional conflict in the Balkans.

The clashes forced lightly armed United Nations police to withdraw from the town in northern Kosovo. With their helicopters circling overhead, NATO troops riding in armored personnel carriers and firing tear gas moved in under a hail of stones and Molotov cocktails. NATO and U.N. personnel were also shot at, officials said, and in some instances returned fire.

Later, Serbs attacked a U.N. convoy that was taking away detainees, enabling several to escape, police said.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops were occupying a sliver of northern Mitrovica late Monday, amid a tableau of burned U.N. vehicles and debris. Serb leaders accused the international troops of using excessive force.

Dozens of people were hurt in Monday’s incidents, the worst violence in Kosovo since the ethnic Albanian-dominated province announced its secession from Serbia on Feb. 17. On Feb. 21, Serb rioters in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, torched the U.S. Embassy in similar protests that left one demonstrator dead and nearly 100 people injured. Washington and several European countries have recognized the new state of Kosovo.

The former province had been under the protection of international troops since 1999, when a U.S.-led NATO air war stopped a crackdown on Albanian separatists by then-dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Belgrade has long insisted that Kosovo, which is currently administered by the U.N., should remain part of what is now Serbia.

On Monday, Serbia appealed to Russia, its main ally in the dispute over Kosovo, and Moscow condemned “the dangerous situation” that was unfolding.

Serbian President Boris Tadic, who is generally pro-Western, urged calm but also accused international forces of using excessive force in Mitrovica. He warned that “this kind of harsh reaction . . . could lead to an escalation of violence in the region.”

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, a hard-line nationalist, condemned the use of force against Serbs who were “protesting the establishing of a false state in the territory of Serbia.” He said Belgrade and Moscow would prepare a “joint reaction” to prevent “all violence against Serbs.”

Mitrovica, a city divided between Albanians in the south and Serbs in the north, has long been a focus of unrest. Serb residents have been protesting daily since Kosovo declared independence, and on Friday they seized control of a U.N. court building. They apparently wanted to prevent Albanian judges and personnel from working there in place of Serbs.

After a weekend of negotiations in which United Nations officials repeatedly ordered the demonstrators to leave the building, U.N. police began forcibly ejecting the Serbs before dawn Monday.

That’s when the serious fighting started. As protesters who had occupied the court were being led away, angry Serbs blocked the roads and began hurling stones and grenades at the international forces. The clashes quickly escalated.

About 70 Serbs and 40 U.N. or NATO personnel, including Poles, French and Ukrainians, were injured, officials said. The Serb casualties included three people with gunshot wounds, one of whom may not survive, Serbian media reports said.

NATO and the European Union, which is scheduled to replace the U.N. in the coming months with a supervisory mission of 2,000 police and judges, expressed concern and outrage over the violence and called on Serb leaders to control their communities.

“NATO condemns in the strongest form the violence we have seen in northern Kosovo today,” alliance spokesman James Appathurai said in Brussels, according to news agency reports. NATO forces in Kosovo “will respond firmly to any acts of violence, as is its mandate from the United Nations.”

Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, also appealed for calm.

“This violence leads nowhere and does not benefit anyone,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was in Moscow meeting with Russian officials, said Kosovo was discussed, and she acknowledged serious disagreement between the two governments. She said she was “very concerned” by events in Mitrovica and told Serbs living in Kosovo that “this is not a time for provocative action.”

Serbia’s leaders were keen to note that the violence came exactly four years after riots by Albanians left 19 people dead and hundreds of Serb-owned homes, churches and monasteries burned to the ground. Tens of thousands of Serbs fled Kosovo in the wake of that violence, which Serbs call a pogrom.

Many observers anticipate that the Serbs will attempt to partition off Mitrovica and other Serb enclaves from the rest of Kosovo.

But Kosovo’s Albanians are stepping up pressure on their international minders by demanding that any such partition be blocked.

“What we are experiencing is a ‘soft partition’ or ‘prolonged partition’ of Kosova and . . . a de facto division of Kosova would be a negative generator in both societies,” prominent Kosovo Albanian politician Veton Surroi wrote in the newspaper he founded, Koha Ditore. Serbia’s actions “threaten not only Kosova, but also Europe’s credibility.”

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