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Solana in Kosovo amid border clashes

Latest update : 2008-02-20

Serb demonstrators set border posts ablaze in protest at Kosovo's independence as EU's top diplomat Javier Solana arrived in Pristina on Tuesday.(Report: O.Fairclough)

Gangs of angry Serbs destroyed two checkpoints on the Kosovo-Serbia border in arson attacks on Tuesday, prompting NATO peacekeepers to intervene for the first time since Kosovo's independence.

The violence flared at the border crossing points of Banja and Jarinje, when at least 1,000 Serbs from Kosovo and Serbia ransacked and torched buildings before fleeing, officials told AFP.

"Around 1,000 Serbs arrived from Kosovo and another 150 from Serbia greeted each other and broke out into huge violence ... that lasted 45 minutes," said a United Nations policeman at the Banja post.

"The post was guarded by the Serb (members of the Kosovo Police Service), Albanian policemen were not there. They (the gangs) immediately said they would not attack officials."

A Kosovo Serb policeman at the scene told AFP: "We couldn't do anything, we just moved away as there were only a few of us compared with the group of very angry Serbs."

There were no casualties in the attacks, which came two days after Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence from Serbia.

In a statement late Tuesday, the UN interim mission in Kosovo, which still oversees border crossings, said the two posts would remain closed "for 24 hours."

"I expect all Kosovo citizens to exercise calm," said Joachim Ruecker, head of the UN mission.

The incidents occurred as European Union foreign affairs chief Javier Solana became the first leader to travel to Pristina since its leaders declared independence.

"These were isolated incidents that will not undermine the greatness of the dignified celebrations of independence by the citizens," Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci told a joint press conference with Solana.

Earlier, Slavisa Ristic, the mayor of the nearby Serb-populated town of Zubin Potok, said the violence occurred after Serbs heard Kosovo Albanian customs officials were arriving to man the border with Serbia, according to Serbia's Beta news agency.

"We cannot allow that institutions of a non-existing state be imposed on us," Ristic was quoted as saying.

Kosovo's independence was declared by its parliament on Sunday and has been recognised by the United States and most European powers.

Serbia and its ally Russia are opposed to Kosovo's independence, describing the move as "illegal."

The crossing at Jarinje is the main roadway linking the Serbian capital Belgrade with the Serb-populated northern half of the ethnically divided Kosovo town of Kosovska Mitrovica.

At the scene, a plume of thick white smoke billowed from the checkpoint and most structures were destroyed. A dozen UN vehicles, one firefighting truck and an ambulance were parked nearby.

Troops from NATO's 17,000-strong Kosovo Force (KFOR) and international police later blocked all roads to the northern Serb enclave of Leposavic, on the border with Serbia, Tanjug news agency reported.

French KFOR troops prevented movement in and out of the municipality, while helicopters flew overhead, said the Serbian agency, adding a dozen armored vehicles were parked along the road leading to a KFOR base.

Overnight, three explosions rocked Kosovo's north. Two went off in the flashpoint town of Mitrovica, damaging several UN vehicles, but causing no injuries.

Three Serb-majority municipalities of the north including Leposavic and Mitrovica are effectively partitioned from the rest of Kosovo.

Serb leaders recently announced plans to set up their own parliament in Mitrovica, where Belgrade recently opened a government office.

The Serbian government says intends to strengthen links with Kosovo Serbs through investments, like the town's sparkling new Telekom Srbija building.

In the north, Serbian flags can be seen everywhere, vehicles have Serbian number plates, and the currency is the dinar instead of the euro which is used in the rest of Kosovo.

Post offices and hospitals are Serb-run, while their schools across the entire region have Serbia's curriculum.

Around 40,000 of the estimated 120,000 Serbs in post-conflict Kosovo are concentrated in the north. The rest are scattered in isolated enclaves.

Date created : 2008-02-19