Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Serbs torch U.N. border checkpoints

Serbs torch U.N. border checkpoints

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KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Kosovo — Thousands of Serbs chanting ''Kosovo is Serbia'' marched Tuesday to a bridge dividing them from ethnic Albanians while others torched U.N. border checkpoints and cars to protest Kosovo's declaration of independence.

NATO troops later closed down the roads leading to the checkpoints, cutting off the only link between northern Kosovo and Serbia, said Besim Hoti, a U.N. spokesman. The move appeared to be due to fears that the reduction of U.N. control of the border could allow Serbian militants to return to fight in Kosovo, a land

Serb nationalists consider the cradle of their state and religion. Smoke billowed from two checkpoints separating Kosovo from Serbia and flames engulfed several U.N. vehicles set ablaze in protest against Kosovo's weekend proclamation of independence and anger over international recognition of the new nation.

For two days, Kosovo's Serbs have shown their determination to shun the declaration by destroying U.N. and NATO property, setting off small bombs and staging noisy rallies through the Serb stronghold of Kosovska Mitrovica.

The attacks on U.N. border crossings showed the protesters' willingness to use violence to hold onto Kosovo — and could clear the way for Serbian militants to return to fight in Kosovo, a land Serb nationalists consider the cradle of their state and religion.

Kosovo has not been under Belgrade's control since 1999, when NATO launched airstrikes to halt a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists. A U.N. mission since has governed Kosovo, with more than 16,000 NATO troops and a multiethnic police force policing the province.

The divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica in the north has been tense since the ethnic Albanian leadership in Pristina unilaterally declared independence from Serbia on Sunday — widely expected after internationally mediated talks on the province's future fell apart last year.

Overnight, three loud explosions shook the town, with one damaging several cars near a U.N. building. Two hand grenades hit deserted homes that belonged to ethnic Albanians who fled this Serb stronghold after the 1999 war. A U.N. vehicle also was torched overnight in a nearby village.

No injuries were reported, and Kosovo Serb authorities said they were investigating the bombings.

In Jarnije and Banja, some 18 miles north of Kosovska Mitrovica, protesters used plastic explosives and bulldozers to wreck the two border checkpoint posts. Protesters tipped over metal sheds that housed Kosovo's customs service and sent them sliding down a hill and into a river. They vandalized and set fire to passport control booths.

NATO peacekeepers did not intervene but stepped up patrols on the road leading to Serbia. Alliance helicopters buzzed overhead.

The top U.N. official in Kosovo, Joachim Ruecker, condemned the attacks. He said he and the chief of NATO-led peacekeepers decided to close down the two crossings.

''Any violence is completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated,'' the German diplomat said.

Mitrovica's Serb authorities called on Belgrade to ''urgently take steps'' to protect Serbia's territorial integrity and protect its citizens — a covert way of inviting Serbia's military intervention.

Later, about 2,000 young Kosovo Serbs marched to a bridge that spans the Ibar River dividing the town between Serbs and ethnic Albanians, wrecking a NATO car in downtown Mitrovica with sticks and stones along the way.

''We cannot allow the institutions of a nonexistent state to be imposed on us and to pay taxes to some independent Kosovo,'' said Slavisa Ristic, head of the local Serb municipality. ''That is impossible.''

International recognition of Kosovo's declaration of independence — led by the U.S., Australia and the European Union's biggest powers — appeared to feed Serbs' anger over a unilateral move the government in Belgrade rejected as illegal. Russia, China and some EU members also strongly oppose letting Kosovo break away from Serbia over Serbia's objections.

In Vienna, Austria, Serbia's foreign minister urged members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation to condemn Kosovo's ''illegal'' declaration.

''History will judge those who have chosen to trample the bedrock of the international system and on the principles upon which security and cooperation in Europe have been established,'' Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said.

He said Serbia is ready — ''at any time, in any place, in any manner'' — to engage in talks with Pristina to agree on a mutually acceptable solution for Kosovo's future status.

''But we cannot give them sovereignty. ... For us, Kosovo is the crucible of our identity, it is the essential link between our past and our future,'' he said. Kosovo, where the population of 2 million is more than 90 percent ethnic Albanian, insisted during U.N.-led talks on statehood while Serbia, which has deep religious and historic ties to Kosovo, pushed for wide autonomy.

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