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UN forces to leave northern Mitrovica after clashes

Latest update : 2008-03-17

After UN and NATO peacekeepers clashed with Serb protesters Monday in the city of Mitrovica, UN police were ordered to pull out of the city's northern half. (Report: C.Casali)

MITROVICA, Kosovo, March 17 (Reuters) - NATO troops came
under fire during Serb riots in the northern Kosovo flashpoint
of Mitrovica on Monday, in the worst violence in the territory
since the Albanian majority declared independence last month.

The rioting was a challenge to the authority of NATO, the
United Nations and a fledgling European Union justice mission,
underscoring fears that Kosovo could be heading for ethnic
partition exactly one month after breaking away from Serbia.

Reuters witnesses in the town reported hearing gunfire as
hundreds of Serbs clashed with the NATO peacekeeping force KFOR,
and with U.N. police.

A French NATO spokesman said automatic weapons fire had been
aimed at peacekeepers, but gave no further details.

The violence 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 on Friday, and arrested dozens.

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

The police and troops responded with tear gas. Some U.N.
vans with detainees were still in the courtyard of the compound,
with dozens of Serb protesters outside blocking their exit.

"After attacks with explosive devices suspected to be hand
grenades, and firearms, the police are ordered to withdraw from
the north of Mitrovica, while the situation will be taken over
by KFOR," a U.N. police statement said.

"Eight French KFOR soldiers are injured with grenades,
stones and molotov cocktails," said spokesman Etienne du Fayet
de la Tour. Their wounds were not life-threatening, he said.

The U.N. police force (UNMIK) reported three of its officers
had been injured. The Polish news agency PAP said 13 Polish
members of the force had been hurt.



Serbian Minister for Kosovo Slobodan Samardzic demanded the
release of three dozen Serb judges and former court officials
arrested in the retaking of the court.

"Disregarding everything, they (U.N. and KFOR) carried out
this action and provoked the citizenry," he said. "We had an
agreement not to undertake any action before I go to Mitrovica,"
he told the Serbian state news agency Tanjug.

Samardzic said he had met U.S. diplomat Larry Rossin on
Sunday and offered a plan "for resolving all issues between
UNMIK and Serbia and in connection with Serbs in Kosovo".

KFOR is the U.N.-mandated NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo,
where about 120,000 Serbs remain and form a bitter minority
among 2 million ethnic Albanians.

The raid to retake the court coincided with the March 17
anniversary of Kosovo Albanian riots against Serbs in 2004, in
which 19 people were killed and hundreds of homes and churches
burned in two days of chaos that caught NATO flat-footed.

It was this flare-up that pushed the West to start talks on
Kosovo's final status.

The territory had spent years in limbo as a U.N.
protectorate after NATO intervened in 1999 to evict Serbian
forces and halt the ethnic cleansing of civilians in response to
an armed Kosovo Albanian insurgency.

The takeover of the court on Friday was the latest effort by
Serbs to assert control over policing and justice in north
Kosovo following the ethnic Albanian majority's declaration of
independence on Feb. 17.

Kosovo's Serbs, almost half of whom live in the north,
reject Kosovo's Western-backed declaration of independence.

Belgrade, supported by Russia, has vowed never to accept the
secession, and to extend its authority over Kosovo's
Serb-populated areas, particularly the north.

Kosovo's secession has been backed by the United States and
the European Union.

Date created : 2008-03-17