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20 Feb 2008 18:23
Nato peacekeepers closed off roads between Serbia and northern Kosovo and armed United Nations police officers guarded smouldering border checkpoints on Wednesday as thousands of Serbs protested against Kosovo’s independence.
For three days, Kosovo’s Serbs have shown their anger over Sunday’s declaration of independence by ethnic Albanians by destroying UN and Nato property, setting off small bombs and staging noisy rallies.
Chanting “We won’t give up Kosovo,” about 3 000 demonstrators marched to a bridge in the tense Serb stronghold of Kosovska Mitrovica that divides the two communities. UN police officers sealed off the bridge and Nato helicopters hovered overhead.
Protesters expressed their anger over the swift recognition of Kosovo’s independence by world powers including the United States, France, Britain—and now Germany.
Some carried the flag of Spain, one European Union nation that has refused to recognise Kosovo for fear it will encourage Spain’s own pro-independence movements.
After protesters blew up two checkpoint posts separating Kosovo from Serbia and torched UN border patrol cars on Tuesday, Nato troops sealed off the northern border out of concerns that Serbian militants could cross over to fight in Kosovo.
Kosovo Serb leader Nebojsa Radulovic demanded on Wednesday that the crossings with Serbia reopen—or “the Serbs will continue with the protests, with consequences we cannot predict”.
Serbs said bread, milk and other basics did not arrive from Serbia on Wednesday because of the border blockade.
Kosovo, which is 90% ethnic Albanian, has not been under Belgrade’s control since 1999, when Nato launched air strikes to halt a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.
But Serbia—and Kosovo’s Serbs, who make up less than 10% of Kosovo’s population—refuses to give up Kosovo, a territory considered the ancient cradle of Serbs’ state and religion.
Some nations—including Russia, China and Spain—back Serbia in rejecting the move as a violation of international law and a dangerous precedent that could encourage separatists elsewhere.
But “Kosovo’s independence was an inevitable outcome” after years of UN administration, said Massimo D’Alema, Foreign Minister of Italy, one of the countries that announced its intention to recognise Kosovo as a state.
Germany, calling Kosovo’s independence a necessary step for stability in the region, recognised Kosovo as a new state on Wednesday and sent its defence minister to Kosovo for an official visit. Austria and Norway also said they were taking steps to recognise Kosovo’s statehood.
Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said diplomatic relations with those nations were permanently damaged, and Serbia has recalled its ambassadors from Germany and Austria.
“Relations with those states cannot be as before,” he said in Strasbourg, France. “This is going to have an impact on our future progress to European Union membership.”
He said Serbia will fight “tooth and nail” for Kosovo—using all legal means.
In Vienna, a Serbian defence official reiterated that Serbia will not use force to retake Kosovo, but he warned ethnic Albanians against “provocations”.
“What we fear most are armed Albanian groups operating within the region,” assistant defence secretary Dusan Spasojevic said after a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation. “But we fully trust ... KFOR troops, that they can maintain stability and protect civilians.”
The EU on Wednesday formally launched its 1 800-strong mission in Kosovo to help the new nation build its police force and judiciary—a decision Russia sharply criticised.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called it illegal for the EU mission to send a mission to replace the UN without UN Security Council approval.
“There is bitter irony, to put it mildly, in this name, because the mission will be providing for the rule of law in violation of the highest law—in violation of international law,” Lavrov said in Moscow.
EU special representative Pieter Feith, who will head the Kosovo mission, appealed to Serbs—who said they would consider the EU mission an “occupying force”—to stop their protests and to build Kosovo alongside ethnic Albanians.
“We invite all of Kosovo’s citizens, especially Serbs, to return to and share lives as soon as possible, especially the part of the population that has second thoughts about it,” Feith said in Pristina. “Kosovo is one: internationally supported and with a vision for the future.”—Sapa-AP
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