MITROVICA, Kosovo (Reuters) - At least 16 Kosovo Serbs and four NATO troops were injured in clashes at a disputed border crossing on Tuesday, NATO officials and local authorities said.
Witnesses said troops from the NATO peacekeeping force KFOR fired teargas and rubber bullets to disperse a crowd rallying against the removal of a Serb-held barricade on a small road about 150 meters from the Jarinje border post linking Kosovo with Serbia.
NATO spokesman Kai Gudenoge said four peacekeepers were injured after improvised bombs were thrown at their position near Jarinje.
“Four solders were injured in explosions of pipe bombs. Three have minor injuries, while the fourth, who has serious injuries, will be evacuated,” Gudenoge said.
NATO said its forces had responded with rubber bullets used in self defense after Kosovo Serbs pelted them with stones and fired at the border checkpoint 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Pristina.
Milan Jakovljevic, the head of the hospital in the Serb, northern part of Mitrovica, a tense city divided into Albanian and Serb districts, said six wounded men had serious gunshot wounds and not injuries caused by rubber bullets.
Jakovljevic also said that about ten other protesters from Jarinje sought medical attention for minor injuries.
The Pristina government wants to reinstate its presence in the largely lawless northern area which pledges its allegiance to Belgrade, three years after Kosovo — which has an Albanian majority — declared independence from Serbia.
Serbia, however, which opposes Kosovo’s independence, has warned that taking over the contested posts could lead to more clashes.
In a statement on Tuesday, Serbia’s President Boris Tadic called on Kosovo Serbs to remain calm and urged KFOR to show restraint.
“International peacekeepers are there to defend unarmed people, not to clash with them,” Tadic said. “No problem can be solved through violence and jeopardizing lives will not contribute to the defense of our (national) interests.”
In northern Mitrovica, angry Serbs damaged two police vehicles. NATO and police brought reinforcements to the southern, Albanian part of the city, a Reuters eyewitness said.
In Pristina, Kosovo deputy prime minister Hajredin Kuci said authorities will maintain efforts to unblock roads in Kosovo’s north. “We will face criminal structures and ... always protect citizens,” he said.
The clashes came as negotiators from Serbia and Kosovo were to meet in Brussels under EU auspices to try to mend daily ties such as flow of people and goods, property rights and personal documents.
On September 16, Pristina sent police and customs officials to two northern crossings, Brnjak and Jarinje, previously staffed mostly by ethnic Serbs.
In response, Kosovo Serbs blocked all the key roads leading to the border posts and built a separate dirt track near Jarinje to bypass the crossing and enter Serbia.
During a similar operation in July, Pristina tried to install customs at the two crossings to enforce a trade embargo with Serbia. Armed local Serbs drove Kosovo police back and burned the Jarinje border post. One ethnic Albanian policeman was killed.
Earlier on Tuesday, KFOR troops used bulldozers to remove the roadblock near the Jarinje border post and briefly detained five local Serbs.
Kosovo, a new state of around 1.7 million mostly ethnic Albanians, has been recognized by more than 80 countries, including the United States and most of the EU, since 2008.
But northern Kosovo, a predominantly Serb region with a population of about 60,000, has so far refused to recognize Pristina as its capital and pledges allegiance to Serbia. The remainder of Kosovo’s 120,000 Serbs are living in enclaves in Kosovo proper.
Serbia cherishes Kosovo as its historic heartland and most of its medieval monasteries and churches are there. It lost control over Kosovo in 1999, when a NATO bombing campaign halted a Serb counter-insurgency war against ethnic Albanian rebels.
Belgrade is under pressure to mend ties with Kosovo to gain EU candidate status. But the Kosovo issue will be an important factor in Serbia’s parliamentary election due next year.
Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Pristina; Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic, Editing by Rosalind Russell