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Protesters fight police, set fire to Kosovo government headquarters

PRISTINA (Reuters) - Demonstrators in Kosovo fought running battles with police and set fire to the government’s headquarters on Saturday as anger simmers in the young Balkan country over an accord with its former ruler, Serbia.

The seat of government in the capital, Pristina, briefly caught fire after it came under a hail of petrol bombs. Firefighters quickly doused the flames and police used tear gas to drive back several thousand opposition demonstrators.

They were protesting against a European Union-brokered deal to give Kosovo’s ethnic Serb minority greater local government powers and the possibility of financing from Belgrade. Opposition leaders say the government should resign over the accord and call an early election.

Police said 28 people were hurt, including 24 police officers and two journalists. Around 40 protesters were arrested and police confiscated knives and petrol bombs.

Earlier, demonstrators hurled petrol bombs, stones and bottles and set light to several armored police cars.

Kosovo’s government has accused opposition party leaders of organizing the violence and attempting to drag the country into “crime and anarchy.”

“The aim of this protest was to overthrow the government with violence and leave the country in the hands of the incriminated people that today set on fire the (government) building and police,” it said in a statement.

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Opposition parties said they will organize more protests until the government resigns.

Kosovo, which is majority Albanian, declared independence from Serbia with Western support in 2008, almost a decade after NATO air strikes drove out Serbian security forces accused of killing and expelling civilians from the ethnic Albanian majority during a counter-insurgency war.

Serbia does not recognize its former southern province as independent, but both are under pressure from the EU to normalize their relations if they are to progress toward membership of the bloc.

Many Kosovo Albanians believe the accord with Serbia represents a threat to Kosovo’s hard-won sovereignty, now recognized by more than 100 countries including the major Western powers.

Protests against the deal have frequently turned violent over the past year and opposition MPs have repeatedly disrupted the work of parliament by releasing tear gas in the chamber.

U.S. ambassador to Kosovo Greg Delawie, whose country is the biggest supporter of Kosovo’s independence, wrote on Twitter. “Political violence threatens democracy and all that Kosovo has achieved since independence.”

Editing by Mark Trevelyan