Nato holds line in tense north Kosovo after riots

Nato troops secured a hostile strip of north Kosovo on Tuesday after Serb riots in Mitrovica killed one Ukrainian United Nations police officer and forced the pull-out of UN personnel from the Serb stronghold.

The violence was the worst since Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority declared independence from Serbia on February 17, and highlighted the risk of the new state’s partition along ethnic lines.

Soldiers in armoured personnel carriers held key positions in the flashpoint town of Mitrovica, where Serbs bitterly opposed to Kosovo’s independence clashed with UN police and Nato peacekeepers on Monday.

Bridges over the Ibar river that divides the town’s Serb north from the Albanian south were closed. On the north side of the main bridge, Serbs had placed razor-wire and upturned garbage containers across the road.

The UN mission that has run Kosovo since the 1998 to 1999 war said the withdrawal of its police and civilian staff from the Kosovo Serb stronghold of north Mitrovica was only temporary, but could not say when they would return.

A Ukrainian police officer serving with the UN died overnight of injuries sustained in the riots, a Kosovo police spokesperson said. He declined to confirm the cause of death.

The violence, sparked by a UN police operation to retake a UN court seized three days earlier by protesting Serbs, cast further doubt on the deployment in the north of a European Union police mission intended to take over much of the role of the UN administration in Kosovo.

Automatic gunfire

It left Nato holding the line.
But the 16 000-strong peace force has ruled out policing the new state, a job the United Nations is supposed to hand over to the EU over a four-month transition.

“We will maintain our intention to deploy the mission throughout the territory of Kosovo,” the EU’s new Kosovo envoy, Pieter Feith, told a news conference.

Nato said its troops came under automatic gunfire as Serbs converged on the court following the dawn raid. Serb media reports said about 70 civilians were wounded, along with dozens of UN police and soldiers of the 16 000-strong Nato-led peacekeeping force.

The EU last month withdrew a small advance team from north Mitrovica for security reasons. A UN spokesperson said UN staff would return “as soon as the security situation permits”.

Backed by big-power ally Russia, Serbia has rejected Kosovo’s secession and its recognition by the United States and a majority of the EU’s 27 members.

About 120 000 Serbs remain in Kosovo among two million ethnic Albanians. Almost half live in the north, adjacent to Serbia and in complete isolation from the capital Pristina. They reject the incoming EU mission as “occupiers”.

Russia on Monday demanded restraint by Nato and Serbia said it was consulting Moscow on joint steps to protect Kosovo Serbs.

Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999, when Nato bombed to drive out Serb forces and halt the killing and ethnic cleansing of Albanians in a two-year Serb counter-insurgency war.

Belgrade is now strengthening a network of parallel structures in Serb areas of Kosovo, severing ties between Serbs and Albanians in all aspects of civic life.

“We have to be present here as a state to provide security for Kosovo Serbs,” Serbia’s Minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, told Serbian state television late on Monday.

Addressing the crowd in Mitrovica, Samardzic said: “Our battle continues. Kosovo is part of Serbia.” - Reuters

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