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Kosovo's new president Thaci takes office amid protests

PRISTINA (Reuters) - Protesters hurled stones at the Kosovo parliament as new President Hashim Thaci was being sworn in on Thursday and opposition parties boycotted the ceremony, underlining the political crisis besetting the country.

Kosovo Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci walk with flowers after being elected as the country's new president in a tense session as opposition activists released tear gas in the chamber and threw petrol bombs outside the parliament building in Pristina, Kosovo February 26, 2016. REUTERS/Agron Beqiri

Kosovo’s biggest opposition party Vetevendosje said its supporters were responsible for the stone-throwing, which broke windows. Police said they arrested two people.

The opposition in the majority ethnic Albanian country accuses Thaci of helping to clinch an EU-brokered agreement in 2015 that gives a small Serb minority more power over local government decisions and raises the possibility of financing from Belgrade.

Thaci, who led a guerrilla insurgency against Serbian forces in 1998-99, was elected president by parliament in late February despite protesters throwing petrol bombs outside while opposition legislators released tear gas inside.

“The state of Kosovo is committed to normalising relations with Serbia. We cannot change the past but we have to work not to repeat it,” Thaci told parliament after taking the oath.

Thaci, who was Kosovo’s prime minister when it declared independence from Serbia in 2008, will serve a five-year term as president, a largely ceremonial role.

Opposition parties have protested for six months against the deal with Serbia, staging street rallies, repeatedly setting off tear gas in parliament and clashing with police. In January, protesters set the government building on fire.

Kosovo declared independence almost a decade after NATO air strikes drove out Serbian security forces accused of killing and expelling ethnic Albanian civilians during a counter-insurgency war. Kosovo’s independence is now recognised by more than 100 countries, although not by Serbia.

Many Kosovo Albanians believe last year’s accord with Serbia could erode their hard-won sovereignty, though the agreement’s status is unclear after a Kosovo constitutional court ruling in December that parts of it breach the country’s laws.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said on Thursday he did not think Thaci’s inauguration would change anything in Kosovo.

“I am hoping that they will manage to resolve their internal problems and I hope we will be able to continue the dialogue in Brussels,” Vucic told reporters in southern Serbia, referring to talks between Serbia and Kosovo on normalising relations.

Additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade; Editing by Adrian Croft/Mark Heinrich