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updated 5/30/2010 9:55:15 AM ET 2010-05-30T13:55:15

Riot police used tear gas and pepper spray on Sunday to separate hundreds of ethnic Albanian protesters and Serbs voting in local Serbian elections in the tensely divided town of Mitrovica.

NATO peacekeepers and European Union police units were also deployed to prevent clashes on the bridge that that splits the town into Serb north and Albanian south.

About 2,000 ethnic Albanians, led by veterans of the 1998-1999 war against Serbia, were protesting the vote in the Serb part of Mitrovica, which they considered a breach of Kosovo's sovereignty. Serbia doesn't recognize Kosovo's independence.

Singing nationalist songs and chanting the name of the now-disbanded guerrilla army that fought Serb forces in Kosovo, they marched toward the bridge, where hundreds of Serb counter-demonstrators throwing rocks and fireworks were being held back by police.

Police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse Serb protesters trying to charge across the bridge. Minutes later, automatic gunfire came from the north, but police did not report any injuries.

Protesters on both sides dispersed an hour later, although NATO peacekeepers and EU police officers remained deployed guarding the bridge spanning the Ibar river — a natural frontier between the two estranged communities that has been a frequent scene of ethnic clashes between them.

Mitrovica was halved 11 years ago in the aftermath of the Kosovo Albanian rebellion against Serbia after French peacekeepers moved to protect Serbs from Albanians seeking vengeance for their treatment by the Serbs during the violence.

Since then, countless efforts have been made to bring the sides together, but have largely failed. Serbia — and Kosovo's Serbs — refuse to accept the legality of Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008. International overseers as well as Kosovo's government have failed to establish their authority in the north where Serb leaders largely backed by Belgrade are in control.

Although no major ethnically motivated incidents have been reported in recent years, Kosovo's north remains tense.

The last such riots happened in 2008 after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. A Ukrainian peacekeeper was killed by rioting Serbs and dozens of NATO peacekeepers were injured.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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