Sunday, March 23, 2008

UN And NATO Troops Battle Serbs in Kosovo

UN And NATO Troops Battle Serbs in Kosovo

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Mitrovica, Kosovo - Serbs opposed to the independence of Kosovo clashed on Monday with U.N. police and NATO troops, who came under fire, in the worst violence since Kosovo's Albanian majority broke away from Serbia one month ago.

A Serbian party leader said NATO was behaving like the Nazi occupiers of World War Two and Serbia's caretaker prime minister said his country and its ally Russia were discussing joint moves to stop "all forms of violence against Kosovo Serbs."

But a NATO spokesman warned alliance forces would not back down in the face of organized mob violence.

NATO said its troops came under automatic gunfire in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica in clashes which began after U.N. special police backed by NATO peacekeepers stormed a U.N. court that had been seized by Serbs on Friday.

A Serb hospital director said three Serbs were seriously hurt, one shot through the head "by a sniper." A NATO spokesman said warning shots were fired into the air, not into the midst of rioters.

Serb media reports said about 70 civilians were injured in the clashes, in addition to two dozen U.N. police and a dozen members of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force.

KFOR troops secured the area. But the violence underscored fears in the West that Kosovo is headed inexorably for violent ethnic partition.

"NATO condemns in the strongest form the violence we have seen in northern Kosovo today," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said. "KFOR will respond firmly to any acts of violence, as is its mandate from the United Nations," he said.

But Serbia blamed the U.N. and NATO for heavy-handed action.

Its caretaker prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, said in a statement that Serbia and Russia, which has backed Belgrade over Kosovo, were consulting on joint steps to stop "violence against Kosovo Serbs."

He condemned the use of force against Serbs who were opposing the setting-up of a "false state" and he accused NATO of "implementing a policy of force against Serbia."

President Boris Tadic, recalling the March 17, 2004, Albanian riots in which 19 people were killed and hundreds of Serb homes burned down, warned of the risk of provoking a fresh Albanian "pogrom" against Kosovo's 120,000 minority Serbs.

Tomislav Nikolic of Serbia's largest party, the hardline opposition Radicals, called it a "a brutal and savage action" against Serbs, the state news agency Tanjug reported.

He said it reminded him of actions "Hitler's occupying regime carried out against Serbs" in World War Two.

Dawn Raid

The clash began at dawn when several hundred U.N. special police backed by NATO peacekeepers stormed a U.N. court that had been seized by Serbs, and arrested dozens.

Hundreds of Serbs fought back with stones, grenades and powerful firecrackers, forcing the U.N. police to pull back and leave KFOR to face the rioters. Rioters attacked U.N. vehicles, breaking doors to 10 of those detained in the raid.

NATO said shots were fired at troops.

"We used automatic weapons to respond but fired only warning shots," French spokesman Etienne du Fayet de la Tour told Reuters. "We shot in the air, not into the crowd."

"Eight French KFOR soldiers are injured by grenades, stones and Molotov cocktails," said du Fayet de la Tour.

The U.N. police said they ordered their officers to withdraw "after attacks with explosive devices suspected to be hand grenades, and firearms" a statement said.

Fourteen Ukrainian police serving with the United Nations were injured when "fighters attacked a police station," Ukrainian Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko told reporters in Simferopol. Poland said 13 U.N. officers were hurt.

Serbia's minister for Kosovo in the caretaker government, Slobodan Samardzic, said the U.N. broke its word by moving in to evict the court-building occupiers.

"This what they have done to us. We'll pay them back," he told a crowd in the Serb-dominated northern section of divided Mitrovica. Serbs should trust Belgrade, he said.

Asked if the violence would force the European Union to halt or delay deployment of its planned rule-of-law mission numbering some 2,000 police and magistrates, EU foreign affairs chief Javier Solana said: "Let me be very clear. The answer is no."

But Russia, which says the EU mission is illegal, blamed Kosovo's "illegitimate" secession for the rioting and urged international police to show restraint.

"A turn of events which leads to violence and clashes cannot be allowed," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "The international presence should show restraint and act strictly in accordance with its (United Nations) mandate."

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