(Updates with explosion, details)
By Branislav Krstic
MITROVICA, Kosovo, March 17 (Reuters) - Hundreds of Serbs in north Kosovo clashed with U.N. police and NATO peacekeepers on Monday in the worst violence in the territory since the Albanian majority declared independence last month.
Riots erupted in the town of Mitrovica after several hundred U.N. special police backed by French NATO peacekeepers stormed a U.N. court in the town and arrested dozens of Serbs who had seized the building on Friday.
The rioters attacked three U.N. vehicles, breaking doors and freeing around 10 detainees from the raid, witnesses said.
An explosion wounded three U.N. police officers and two NATO soldiers, police said. The injured were being evacuated, but it was not known what caused the blast.
Police and NATO troops fired tear gas to disperse the crowds lobbing stones and firecrackers. Smoke was seen billowing from at least two transport vehicles of the 16,000-strong NATO peace force in Kosovo, KFOR.
"More than 100 people have been treated for the effects of tear gas," Mitrovica hospital director Milan Ivanovic said.
Serb protesters had seized the court on Friday in the latest of a string of measures to assert control over policing and justice in Serb areas of Kosovo following the ethnic Albanian majority’s declaration of independence on Feb 17.
Around 120,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo, a bitter minority among two million ethnic Albanians.
The Kosovo Serbs, almost half of whom live in the north, reject Kosovo’s Western-backed declaration of independence. Supported by Russia, Belgrade has vowed to never accept the secession and to extend its authority over Serb areas, particularly the north.
More than 500 mainly Ukrainian U.N. police were involved in the dawn raid, backed by hundreds of French troops in armoured vehicles.
More than 50 court protesters were arrested and taken to prison in the Kosovo capital, Pristina, a KFOR spokesman said. "KFOR is securing the areas in the north where Kosovo Albanians live," the spokesman said, referring to a handful of Albanian communities in the Serb-dominated north.
Serbs had been protesting outside the court for three weeks, many of them former court employees demanding they return to work nine years after they were left jobless when NATO expelled Serb forces from Kosovo.
Serbia lost control of its southern province in 1999, when NATO intervened to halt the ethnic cleansing of civilians in a counter-insurgency war, and the United Nations took over.
Kosovo’s secession was backed by the United States and the European Union, which is deploying a supervisory mission to take over some of the U.N.’s tasks. Some analysts fear Serbia is now trying to partition the territory.
(Additional reporting by Shaban Buza; writing by Matt Robinson)