At least six protesters and four peacekeepers were wounded Tuesday in the wake of a rally against the removal of a Serb-held roadblock near the disputed border between Kosovo and Serbia, hours before EU-brokered talks between the rival countries.
REUTERS - At least six Kosovo Serbs and four NATO troops were injured in clashes at a disputed border crossing on Tuesday, NATO officials and local authorities said.
Eyewitnesses said troops from the NATO peacekeeping force KFOR fired teargas and rubber bullets to disperse a crowd rallying against the removal of a Serb-held barricade on a small road about 150 meters (yards) from the Jarinje border post linking Kosovo with Serbia.
NATO spokesman Kai Gudenoge said four peacekeepers were injured after improvised bombs were thrown at their position near Jarinje.
"Four solders were injured in explosions of pipe bombs. Three have minor injuries, while the fourth, who has serious injuries, will be evacuated," Gudenoge said.
NATO said its forces had responded with rubber bullets after Kosovo Serbs pelted them with stones and fired at the border checkpoint 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Pristina.
"All the wounded were transferred to the hospital," said Branko Ninic, the mayor of the nearby town of Leposavic. "We are urging people to remain calm. This situation is very dangerous."
A NATO spokesman in Pristina said troops fired rubber bullets in self defence.
Milan Jakovljevic, the head of the hospital in the Serb, northern part of Mitrovica, a tense city divided into Albanian and Serb districts, said the six wounded men had gunshot wounds and not injuries caused by rubber bullets.
In northern Mitrovica, angry Serbs damaged two police vehicles. NATO and police brought reinforcements to the southern, Albanian part of the city, a Reuters eyewitness said.
Serbia, which opposes Kosovo's independence, has repeatedly warned that taking over the contested crossings could lead to more clashes, but appealed for calm and more talks.
The clashes came as negotiators from Serbia and Kosovo were to meet in Brussels under EU auspices to try to mend daily ties such as flow of people and goods, property rights and personal documents.
Goran Bogdanovic, Serbia's Minister for Kosovo said KFOR was to blame for the violence and called for calm and further talks. "It is absolutely unacceptable to shoot at unarmed people.
"We are now trying to rally all relevant international bodies and restore dialogue as the use of force ... by Pristina, KFOR and EULEX (the EU police mission) is absolutely out of the question," Bogdanovic said in a statement.
Earlier on Tuesday, KFOR troops used bulldozers to remove the roadblock near the Jarinje border post and briefly detained five local Serbs.
Kosovo, a new state of around 1.7 million mostly ethnic Albanians, has been recognised by more than 80 countries, including the United States and most of the EU, since 2008.
But northern Kosovo, a predominantly Serb region with a population of about 60,000, has so far refused to recognise Pristina as its capital and pledges allegiance to Serbia. The remainder of Kosovo's 120,000 Serbs are living in enclaves in Kosovo proper.
On Sept. 16, Pristina sent police and customs officials to two northern crossings, Brnjak and Jarinje, previously staffed mostly by ethnic Serbs, to enforce a June 8 trade embargo with Serbia imposed after disagreements with Belgrade over customs procedures.
In response, Kosovo Serbs blocked all the key roads leading to two contested border posts and built a separate dirt track near Jarinje to bypass the crossing and enter Serbia.
During a similar operation in July, armed local Serbs drove Kosovo police back and burned the Jarinje border post. One ethnic Albanian policeman was killed during the riots.
Kosovo authorities lifted the trade ban with Serbia earlier this month under an EU-sponsored deal with Belgrade.
Serbia cherishes Kosovo as its historic heartland and most of its medieval monasteries and churches are there. It lost control over Kosovo in 1999, when a NATO bombing campaign halted a Serb counter-insurgency war against ethnic Albanian rebels.
Belgrade is under pressure to mend ties with Kosovo to gain EU candidate status. But the Kosovo issue will be an important factor in Serbia's parliamentary election due next year.