Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Nato Troops Called in as Mobs Torch Checkpoints on Kosovan Border

Nato Troops Called in as Mobs Torch Checkpoints on Kosovan Border

By Catherine Philp

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Protests by Serbs on the border rapidly descended into violence and arson.

Mitrovica - Nato peacekeepers were forced into action for the first time since Kosovo declared independence after Serbs attacked and set fire to official checkpoints on the border with Serbia.

More than 1,000 Serbs, including women and children, had met at the border to stage a demonstration rejecting Kosovo's secession.

But the crowd, who were joined by another group from Serbia proper, quickly grew violent and attacked the two checkpoints at Banja and Jarinje guarded by ethnic Serb members of Kosovo's multi-ethnic police force.

The protesters tipped over metal sheds that housed Customs services, sending them sliding down the hillside, before setting fire to the remaining buildings. A local policeman at the scene reported: "We couldn't do anything, we just moved away as there were only a few of us compared with the group of very angry Serbs."

Kosovan police and their UN counterparts were forced to withdraw and call for help from Nato peacekeepers. Armoured vehicles packed with French troops arrived to block off the road leading north to Serbia, while Nato helicopters buzzed overhead.

Serb officials said the demonstrators had been trying to prevent ethnic Albanian officials from setting up their own Customs offices at the crossing points, not previously recognised as an international border. Slavisa Ristic, the mayor of the local Serb municipality closest to the border, said: "We cannot allow the institutions of a non-existent state to be imposed on us with us paying taxes to some independent Kosovo. That is impossible."

Police officials, however, said that no ethnic Albanians had been present at the checkpoints.

Three Serb municipalities, including the northern half of the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica, are effectively partitioned from the rest of Kosovo. They are no-go areas for Kosovo Albanians and are policed by a mixture of Serbs from the Kosovo police forces and security forces from Serbia, which also provides jobs, welfare payments, power and healthcare to its ethnic brethren there.

Fears that northern Kosovo will secede rose sharply with Kosovo's declaration of independence, when Serb leaders said they would set up their own parliament and strengthen links with Belgrade. Kosovo Albanians have refused to let the Serb enclaves go.

The violence came as Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, became the first senior Western official to visit Kosovo since its declaration. The EU is to be chief sponsor of an independent Kosovo, sending a 2,000-strong judicial mission in weeks. Mr Solana arrived as the Parliament in Pristina passed its first legislation, creating Kosovan citizenship, passports and a foreign ministry.

As the checkpoints burned, the international furore refused to die down, with Serbia calling on the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to condemn the declaration as illegal. Russia is moving forward with a motion at the United Nations Security Council to reverse Kosovo's secession.

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