Tensions and violence on the rise in Kosovo

Other News Materials 19 February 2008 23:13 (UTC +04:00)

( dpa )- Albanian police were pulled Tuesday from the Serb-dominated northern part of the newly-declared state of Kosovo amid rising tensions and growing violence.

"We have withdrawn our Albanian colleagues from the north ... for security reasons," the regional police spokesman, Besim Hoti, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Serbs, though a clear minority in Kosovo, are the vast majority in the northernmost section of the territory.

Their local leaders and Belgrade have vowed never to accept the independence which the Kosovo government, run by the 90-per-cent Albanian majority, declared on Sunday.

The Kosovo police force is multi-ethnic and reflects the ethnic make-up of the area it patrols, which means that the force is mostly Serb in the area north of the divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica, 40 kilometres north-west of the capital Pristina.

Before the border attacks from Serbia, which Serbs say were motivated by news that Albanians were taking over as customs officers at the checkpoints, several explosions have rocked the northern Kosovo since Sunday, but without inflicting injuries.

Developments highlight the de facto partition of Kosovo along ethnic lines, with Mitrovica, where Serbs and Albanians are divided by just a bridge, being warily watched as the likeliest hotspot.

Earlier Tuesday, Kosovo and international police pulled back from two border points with Serbia after an angry Serb mob set one checkpoint on fire and blew the other one up with explosives.

NATO-led peacekeepers, who have guarded Kosovo since 1999, sent reinforcements and took control of the area, while the UN administration in Pristina closed the two targeted crossings until Wednesday.

Protests at the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo, which has been recognized by several countries, including the United States, have been growing in Serbia since Sunday.

Alongside peaceful marches, groups of protesters have rioted, attacking embassies - US, Slovenian and Turkish - and businesses such as McDonald's restaurants and Mercator stores in Belgrade and other cities to show their anger at the Western support for Kosovo.

Apart from recognition, the European Union is sending a mission of expert police, judicial, customs and administration officials to help Kosovo's first sovereign steps.

Though the EU has failed to reach a consensus on recognizing Kosovo, amid opposition from Cyprus, Spain, Slovakia, Greece and Romania, Brussels' top foreign policy diplomat, Javier Solana, insisted in Pristina Tuesday that the EU was united in supporting it.

"The EU is united, so much so, that we are going to put people on the ground, on behalf of the EU," Solana said after meeting with Kosovo officials in Pristina.

Belgrade has angrily rejected the mission as a step toward Kosovo's independence and has this month frozen its own approach to EU membership.

The leading Serbian parties, both ruling and in opposition, scheduled a rally in Belgrade for Thursday. Media estimates that more than one million people may show up.

Free rides were offered and schools would be closed for the rally, at which Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, President Boris Tadic and the ultra-nationalist opposition leader Tomislav Nikolic are due to speak.

On the diplomatic front, Serbia, backed by Russia, has asked the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to condemn and overturn Kosovo's secession.

Belgrade has also been withdrawing ambassadors for consultations from countries that have recognized its breakaway province as the world's newest country.