NATO peacekeepers rushed reinforcements to Kosovo's hotspot town Monday, as weeks of tension flared to the verge of all-out armed conflict between rioting Serbs and international security forces.
The situation was deemed to unsafe for UN workers to remain in the city
More than 100 people, including 63 international security force members, were hurt amid gunfire and a suspected grenade blast after they moved in to regain control of the UN-run tribunal in the northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica, police officials said.
Some 400 NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers had been sent to the northern, Serb-dominated section of Mitrovica as UN police and civilian officials were ordered out in a situation evaluated as too dangerous for non-military personnel.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon deplored the violent attacks against UN and NATO-led forces and urged "all communities to exercise calm and restraint." He expected "all sides to refrain from any actions or statements that could incite or provoke further violence," a statement from his office said.
"Time for maturity"
In the capital Pristina, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci vowed to maintain control over Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia on February 17. Serbia considers Kosovo's secession illegal.
Thaci called for calm and maturity
"We are responsible and are determined to defend law and order, but most of all the territorial integrity of Kosovo," Thaci said after meeting the European Union envoy to Kosovo, Pieter Feith. "Now it's time for maturity, calm and common responsibility."
Rioting lasted some six hours, from early morning until around noon, during which shots were occasionally heard. KFOR said in the early afternoon that it has imposed control over northern Mitrovica and established checkpoints around it and helicopters hovered above.
A river divides Mitrovica between a Kosovar Albanian-dominated section in the south and the northern part, which is the hub of the largest Serb enclave in Kosovo.
Police spokesman Besim Hoti said 25 United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) police officers were injured. KFOR spokesman Etienne Du Fayet said eight peacekeepers were injured.
"We received a couple of hits by firearms, Molotov cocktails and even hand grenades. Those...were fired towards KFOR and injured our soldiers," Du Fayet told news agency Dpa.
UN police protect the court compound during clashes
Kosovo Serbian medical sources said they treated nearly 80 protesters, two of whom sustained life-threatening injuries.
The deputy head of UNMIK, Larry Rossin, and KFOR commander General Xavier Bout de Marnhac condemned "the resort to lethal violence, including direct fire, taken by a mob."
Resorting to violence "crosses one of the red lines that have been clearly articulated to the leaders of Kosovo Serbs in the north and to officials in Belgrade," they said.
Belgrade nationalists encouraged violence
But violence in northern Kosovo, the largest Serb enclave with parallel structures of authority endorsed by Serbia, has simmered each day since Kosovo declared independence a month ago.
The 120,000 Serbs who live in Kosovo along with 2 million ethnic Albanians reject the Feb. 17 declaration of independence from Serbia. Belgrade has said it will never accept Kosovar statehood.
At least encouraged by Belgrade leaders, including outgoing Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and his hawkish Kosovo Minister Slobodan Samardzic, Serbs have protested daily in northern Kosovo and occasionally resorted to violence.
"Activities that the Serbs undertake ... which sometimes include elements of low-level violence, are a product of Kosovo's illegal declaration of independence," Samardzic said.
After a spate of violent incidents last month, when Serbs set UN vehicles and border checkpoints on fire, Samardzic justified the attacks as a "legitimate" reaction to Kosovo's split from Serbia.
Kosovo tensions set to continue
While Pristina is desperate to keep the northern fifth of Kosovo under control, Belgrade wants to strengthen the de facto partition along ethnic lines by keeping both the Albanian-dominated government and the international presence out.
Without security forces of its own, Pristina relies on UN and KFOR to impose laws north of river Ibar, in the Serb-dominated fifth of the country. Officials welcomed the raid on the Mitrovica courthouse.
"We asked UN and KFOR from the start of the crisis to restore law and order and protect Kosovo's institutions," deputy premier Hajredin Kuci told DPA. "The UN Mission in Kosovo and KFOR should deploy its entire force and authority in all parts of Kosovo."
In a statement Monday afternoon, however, Kostunica said he "sharply condemns the use of force against Serbs who resist the establishment of a false state (Kosovo) on Serbia's soil."
With parliamentary polls in Serbia scheduled for May 11, tensions and potential for violence are certain to persist in northern Kosovo, as the receding province provides ammunition for the nationalist rhetoric in Belgrade.
"I would like at this point to urge everybody in Kosovo to remain calm, to show restraint, and think of the future," EU envoy Feith told reporters in Pristina.