Violence renewed in northern Kosovo; 11 injured
Sep 27, 2011, 14:49 GMT
Belgrade/Brussels - Tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets were fired and at least 11 people were injured Tuesday when NATO peacekeepers clashed with Serbs in the volatile northern Kosovo.
The foreign policy chief of the European Union, which has been trying to keep tensions between Pristina and Belgrade in check, told European lawmakers in Strasbourg, France, during a speech on the Middle East peace process, that she was just 'as worried, if not more' about the developments in northern Kosovo.
Back in Brussels, her spokeswoman said EU officials 'strongly condemn' the renewed violence and called on all parties to 'show restraint and act responsibly.'
The clash came as the peacekeeping mission, KFOR, moved to remove Serb roadblocks weeks after they began blocking traffic in the area, amid a dispute over the borders and opening illegal pathways to Serbia proper to circumvent controls.
'These barricades restrict freedom of movement and should be removed,' Ashton's spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic, said.
But a mob hurled rocks at KFOR troops when they blocked one of the illegal paths between northern Kosovo and Serbia, leading them to respond, the peacekeeping mission confirmed.
It said four troops were injured in the clash, one of them seriously. The injured soldier was transported to a hospital by helicopter.
In Belgrade, leaders condemned KFOR's intervention as an attack on unarmed civilians.
President Boris Tadic said he was 'profoundly concerned' and urged KFOR to show restraint. Deputy Prime Minister Ivica Dacic described KFOR's actions as 'major shame' for the international community.
Sources from the largest Serb enclave, in mostly Albanian Kosovo, said seven demonstrators were hurt in the clashes, with several allegedly shot.
Serbian television RTS quoted people on the scene as saying that automatic gunfire could be heard. KFOR helicopters have been flying over the area since the incident in the early afternoon.
Serbian Kosovo Minister Goran Bogdanovic told reporters it was 'absolutely unacceptable' that 'soldiers are shooting at unarmed people.'
In a tense game played out over the previous two weeks, Serbs have immediately re-erected barricades that have been removed, but also challenged peacekeepers by refusing to move out of the way of their vehicles and hurling stones at them.
The Serbs erected roadblocks throughout their enclave in mid-September to protest their loss of control over the border crossings to Serbia proper.
They also opened improvised pathways to Serbia to circumvent controls. KFOR has closed several of the 'alternate' routes over recent days, but new paths keep appearing.
The takeover of the border crossings is a part of Pristina's effort to finally assert its authority over the Serb enclave and sever Belgrade's influence there. The move is strongly backed by NATO and the European Union.
In a first bid by Kosovo authorities to take the border checkpoints in late July, a policeman was killed by a sniper. KFOR then took control over the borders and declared the area a restricted military zone, threatening to respond with deadly force to any attack.
The EU's law-enforcing mission in Kosovo, EULEX, accompanied by Kosovo customs officers, reclaimed the border crossings on September 16, triggering the ongoing wave of Serb protests in the enclave.
Kosovo, a former province, declared independence from Belgrade in 2008 and has been recognized by many Western leaders, but remains unable to subdue ethnic Serbs, who have Belgrade's political and financial support.
Despite their mutual hostility, Belgrade and Pristina in March embarked on talks under EU mediation, aiming to resolve issues such as transport, trade and education.
As violence erupted Tuesday, another round of the talks began in Brussels on Tuesday, with energy, telecommunications and Serbia's veto of Kosovo's participation in regional initiatives on the agenda.