Serbia returns to the offensive over Kosovo

BELGRADE Sun Mar 23, 2008 10:00am EDT

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica addresses the media during a news conference in Belgrade March 8, 2008. REUTERS/Ivan Milutinovic

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica addresses the media during a news conference in Belgrade March 8, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Ivan Milutinovic

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BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica on Sunday accused NATO peacekeepers and United Nations police of using "snipers and banned ammunition" to quell a Serb riot against Kosovo's independence.

"It was the international forces," he told the daily Vecernje Novosti in an interview, referring to a riot in the Kosovo Serb stronghold of Mitrovica last Monday in which a Ukrainian U.N. policeman was killed and a Serb badly wounded in the head.

"Obviously, the situation in Kosovo is very difficult and there are reasonable and unreasonable people. The battle is on for the whole of Kosovo," Kostunica said.

When the powers which back independence for the majority Albanian province realized that Serbia would never recognize it, "they displayed force," Kostunica said "brutal force, snipers and banned ammunition".

U.N. police and NATO troops raided a U.N. court building on Monday which had been occupied by Serb protesters, including Serbian interior ministry officials, according to the U.N.

The U.N. and NATO say the violence was instigated by Belgrade. They say Serbs threw grenades and Molotov cocktails and fired automatic weapons in a deliberate attempt to kill.

Serbs say one man now in a coma was shot by a NATO sniper. Kostunica's "banned ammunition" charge refers to plastic bullets.

VOTERS WILL DECIDE

Kostunica is now a caretaker premier. His coalition collapsed this month over his hard-line policy of rejecting closer European Union ties until the EU reverses its recognition of Kosovo.

He said this would be the key issue in the early general election now scheduled for May 11, with rival Democrats led by pro-Western president Boris Tadic advocating a less confrontational approach.

Serbia would not submit to blackmail, Kostunica said.

He was "seriously worried" by pro-EU Serbs who he said would give Serbia a "government ready to push aside the defense of its integrity and say: Let's join Europe and then fight for Kosovo".

More than 30 countries have recognized Kosovo, led by the United States and the major EU powers. Russia backs Serbia and refers to the declaration of independence as an illegal move.

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, a member of Tadic's party, said independence was a mistake and Serbia would do all it takes to put "the genie back in the bottle", and restart talks between Serbs and Kosovo's 90 percent Albanian majority.

"Our battle will imply preventing membership for the so-called state of Kosovo in international institutions," Jeremic told Glas Javnosti in an interview. "I have already written to 23 international institutions and forums ... warning them that they must not respond positively to Kosovo's possible membership request."

Belgrade was working to "consolidate the majority of countries not recognizing Kosovo's independence" who would outweigh the bloc of countries that support it. His ministry has publicly backed China in its handling of riots in Tibet.

Jeremic said the goal was to seek the opinion of the International Court of Justice and the U.N. General Assembly in September.

If placed on the agenda of the General Assembly, where each UN member country has one vote, Jeremic said it would be a "very important tactical and diplomatic victory".

(Reporting by Gordana Filipovic; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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