IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Serb protesters attack U.N. police in Kosovo

Violent protests rocked Serb-dominated northern Kosovo on Friday, as mobs chanting "Kosovo is ours!" hurled stones, bottles and firecrackers at U.N. police guarding a bridge that divides Serbs from ethnic Albanians.
Image: Serb protesters face riot police in Mitrovica, Kosovo.
Serb protesters face U.N. riot police on the main bridge in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica in Kosovo on Friday.Damir Sagolj / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Violent protests rocked Serb-dominated northern Kosovo on Friday, as mobs chanting "Kosovo is ours!" hurled stones, bottles and firecrackers at U.N. police guarding a bridge that divides Serbs from ethnic Albanians.

The scenes evoked memories of the carnage unleashed by former Serb autocrat Slobodan Milosevic the last time Kosovo tried to break away from Serbia, which considers the territory its ancestral homeland.

There were disturbing signs the riots in Belgrade, Serbia, and in Mitrovica have the blessing of nationalists in the Serbian government, which hopes to somehow undo the loss of the beloved province.

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's authorities have repeatedly vowed to reclaim the land, despite U.S. and other Western recognition of Kosovo's statehood. Some hard-line government ministers have praised the violent protests as "legitimate" — and in line with government policies of retaining control over Serb-populated areas.

Serbian President Boris Tadic called an emergency meeting of the national security council and said the rioting that engulfed the capital must "never happen again."

"I most sharply condemn the violence, looting and arson," Tadic said in a statement. "There is no excuse for the violence. Nobody can justify what happened yesterday."

Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders declared independence from Serbia on Sunday. The province, which is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, has not been under Serbia's control since 1999, when NATO launched airstrikes to halt a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists. A U.N. mission has governed Kosovo since.

Seeking safety assurances
The U.S. ambassador to Serbia demanded that authorities do more to guarantee the safety of foreign diplomatic missions after nationalists in Belgrade set fire to the U.S. Embassy in riots Thursday that left one dead and more than 150 injured.

The State Department ordered nonessential diplomats and the families of all American personnel at the embassy to leave Serbia after the attack.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticized the Serbs over the lack of protection to the embassy.

"They had an obligation to protect diplomatic missions, and from what we can tell the police presence was either inadequate or unresponsive," Rice told reporters. "We've made very clear to the Serb government that we don't expect that to happen again."

She said it is time for Serbs to accept that Kosovo is no longer theirs. Rice suggested that it also was time to drop centuries of grievance and sentimentality in the Balkans.

"We believe that the resolution of Kosovo's status will really, finally, let the Balkans begin to put its terrible history behind it," Rice said. "I mean, after all, we're talking about something from 1389 — 1389! It's time to move forward."

In his first post-independence interview, Kosovo's prime minister told The Associated Press that the violence is reminiscent of the Milosevic era.

"The pictures of yesterday in Belgrade were pictures of Milosevic's time," said Hasim Thaci, a former guerrilla leader of the disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, said at his office in Pristina, the capital. "What we saw were terrible things."

He said the violence was reminiscent of Milosevic's bloody 1998-99 crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo — which was only halted by NATO airstrikes on Serbia.

'We will never surrender'
In Kosovska Mitrovica, some 5,000 Serbs rallied in the tense town, waving Serbian flags and chanting "Kosovo is ours!" in a fifth day of protests since the independence declaration. Protesters lobbed firecrackers in a skirmish with police.

The clashes took place on the Kosovska Mitrovica bridge over the Ibar River — dividing Kosovo Serbs from ethnic Albanians — long a flashpoint of tensions in Kosovo's restive north.

"Kosovo is Serbia and we will never surrender, despite blackmail by the European Union," Serbian government official Dragan Deletic told the crowd, which responded by chanting: "Kosovo is Serbia."

He was referring to the several EU countries, including Britain, Germany, France and Italy, that have recognized Kosovo's declaration of independence.

Tensions were higher than usual Friday after French NATO peacekeepers on Kosovo's border refused to allow in several busloads of Serbs who wanted to join the rally.

There were fears that Serbian soccer hooligans, the same ones who attacked the U.S. and other embassies in Belgrade, were among those on the buses. Some of the hooligans apparently managed to evade the blockade, leading the clashes at the bridge.

'Time to leave this country'
Kosovo Serbs have been venting their anger over Kosovo's statehood by destroying U.N. and NATO property, setting off hand grenades and staging noisy rallies.

Even so, some Serbs seeing the violence can't help thinking the spasm of outrage will set back their cause. Pictures of women returning repeatedly for armfuls of clothes at trashed boutiques drew particular note.

"It is sending the picture of Serbia as bandits," said Miobor Stosic, 67, a retired airline official. "We are so ashamed."

Toma Rajcic, 40-year-old lawyer from Belgrade, was depressed over what happened.

"It is disgusting. It is all coming back, the fighting, darkness," he said. "It is disgusting. It's time to leave this country."

Pro-Western politicians in Serbia accused hard-line nationalists in the Kostunica's government of inciting the violence.

Parties of Tadic and Kostunica are united in a coalition government that has ruled Serbia since mid-2007. But the two differ sharply on Kosovo, with Tadic saying Belgrade must press on with efforts to join the EU regardless of Kosovo, and Kostunica seeking to drop the bid because most EU countries plan to recognize the province's independence.

Kostunica appealed for an end to the violence.

"This directly damages our ... national interests. All those who support the fake state of Kosovo are rejoicing at the sight of violence in Belgrade," he said. He made no mention of the damaged embassies.

Police said that in addition to the U.S. and Croatian embassies, the missions of Turkey, Bosnia, Belgium and Canada also were targeted.

The U.S. ambassador to Bosnia said he had closed the consulate in the northwestern city of Banja Luka a day after protesters burned the U.S. flag and tried to storm the building.

Bosnia consists of two ministates, one run by Bosnian Serbs, the other by Bosniaks and Croats. The Bosnian Serb parliament has condemned Kosovo's move and said it will consider a referendum to secede from Bosnia if more countries recognize Pristina's government.