Violence in Flashpoint Kosovo Town over 'Plant Pot' Blockade

Kosovo police fired tear gas on Sunday to disperse stone-throwing protesters who set alight police cars demanding the removal of a barricade on a bridge linking ethnic Albanians and Serbs in the divided town of Mitrovica.

Six policemen and two photographers were slightly injured as about 1,000 ethnic Albanian protesters pelted the police cordon with stones, police said in a statement.

At least 10 protesters were also slightly injured while several people were detained for questioning, the statement said.

Anti-riot police, backed by NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers, responded with tear gas and sealed off the bridge to prevent demonstrators crossing to the northern, Serb half of the town.

The protesters later set on fire two Kosovo police cars and two vehicles belonging to the European Union rule of law mission, EULEX.

They were angry over a three-year-old barricade put up by ethnic Serbs on the bridge over the river Ibar that separates the two communities. 

Until last week, it was an unsightly mess of earth and concrete blocks -- a largely symbolic barrier expressing the angry refusal of ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo to merge with the rest of the country after it declared independence in 2008.

The pile was removed on Wednesday only to be replaced a few hours later by a line of plant pots with small fir trees, and the bridge was covered with a layer of soil which the local Serb mayor said would be used to create a "peace park."

Prime Minister Hashim Thaci condemned the move, describing it as a "dangerous and illegal game."

"Freedom of movement is a fundamental right and it cannot be violated by anyone. Therefore, I call local leaders of the Serb community to be reasonable and remove this barrier," Thaci said in a statement.

Zeljko Bojic, head of the local police, said an uneasy calm has returned to the flashpoint town after the protesters were dispersed.

"For security reasons, police units will patrol the area overnight" Sunday, Bojic told reporters.

In Pristina, the Kosovo government called for calm and urged for the bridge to be opened to "all kinds of traffic" as soon as possible, a statement said.

And KFOR commander general Salvatore Farina in a statement called on "everyone to act calmly," urging ethnic Albanians and Serbs to engage in dialogue.

Another smaller bridge crosses the river, which separates majority ethnic Albanians in the southern half of Kosovska Mitrovica from minority ethnic Serbs in the north.

The 40,000 Serbs of north Kosovo have strongly resisted an EU-brokered deal signed between Kosovo and Serbia last year that accepted Kosovan control of the region.

They have refused to recognize the government in Pristina and accused Belgrade of betrayal.

But left with few options, they grudgingly took part in Kosovo parliamentary elections for the first time earlier this month.

Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo's independence but implicitly agreed to accept the Pristina government's authority over the territory in return for the opening of EU accession talks.

A total of 120,000 ethnic Serbs live throughout Kosovo, a country of 1.7 million, but most are scattered in small communities away from the border.

Kosovo's independence has been recognized by more than 100 countries, including the United States and most of the European Union's 28 member states.

Source: Agence France Presse

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