(AFP) – Mar 17, 2008
KOSOVSKA MITROVICA (AFP) — UN police were forced to withdraw Monday from the Serb-populated part of this flashpoint Kosovo town after coming under attack as they stormed a court occupied by Serbs opposed to independence.
Police said more than 100 people were injured as the troops met gunfire and suspected grenade blasts in the worst violence to have flared in Kosovo since its independence declaration a month ago on February 17.
The clashes erupted after UN police and NATO-led KFOR (Kosovo Force) troops surrounded the courthouse in Kosovska Mitrovica for a pre-dawn raid to evict the Serb protestors.
Kosovo police officials said that 63 international security force members were injured in the unrest while hospital sources put the number of Serbs hurt at as many as 80.
Kosovo's independence has been recognised by many Western countries but Serbia and Kosovo Serbs -- backed by Russia -- have vehemently rejected the move as illegal.
Serbian President Boris Tadic warned UN and NATO forces against any "excessive reaction" that could spark a further "escalation."
Outgoing Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica condemned the "use of force" and said Serbia had "begun consultations with Russia over necessary mutual reaction in order to halt all violence against the Serbs."
Russia earlier called for a resumption of talks on the status of Kosovo, saying the unrest was a result of the territory's unilateral independence declaration.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon deplored the violence and urged "all communities to exercise calm and restraint," while the bitter differences between the US and Russia over Kosovo's independence were highlighted by contrasting responses.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she wanted the Serbian leadership to press Serbs in Kosovo to avoid "provocative action."
"I do believe the Kosovars are doing everything that they can to maintain calm," Rice told reporters, referring to the Kosovar Albanians who make up the vast majority of the former Serb province.
But Russia's ambassador to NATO accused alliance peacekeepers of using excessive force to try and remove the Serbs from the court house and warned against any escalation.
"Why was disproportionate force used against women and children, who were in the justice building?" Ambassador Dmitry Rogozin told AFP at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
"I would like the escalation to stop. Given that there are lot of hidden guns in Kosovo, there could be a lot of bloodshed. The blood of French soldiers, US soldiers and Serbs will be shed."
"That will mean a new, serious conflict from which no way out will be found," he warned.
Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci accused Belgrade of "inspiring violence," saying it was "regretful that the Serbian government has not learnt any lesson from the past."
"They still think they can realize their goals from the past by inspiring violence in new Kosovo," he added.
Thaci urged Belgrade "to call the Serbian people to be calm and mature. There is no place for violence in a new Kosovo, no need for acts as in Mitrovica today," Thaci said.
The Serbs in the courthouse -- many of whom worked in the judiciary before Kosovo came under UN administration in 1999 -- had demanded the establishment of their own court.
As the UN police arrived, about 100 angry Serbs pelted them with stones. Police used tear gas to disperse them and several UN vehicles were set alight.
Dozens of Serbs were arrested during the unrest and some were taken to Pristina for questioning before being released later, police said.
At least 27 of the wounded UN police were Polish, Poland's national police spokesman Mariusz Sokolowski said in Warsaw, adding they had been pelted with rocks, homemade explosives and possibly shot at.
Kosovo's NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers have remained in the tense town and witnesses said more troops were seen on the roads leading to Mitrovica.
"NATO condemns, in the strongest terms, violence that we have seen today. NATO will respond firmly to ensure a safe and secure environment," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said in Brussels.
Northern Kosovo has a 40,000-strong Serb population who are divided from the mainly ethnic Albanian south by the Ibar River, which passes through Mitrovica.
The clashes came on the four-year anniversary of the March 2004 anti-Serb riots by ethnic Albanians in which 19 people were killed and dozens of mediaeval Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries were destroyed or damaged.
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