MITROVICA (Reuters) - Two NATO soldiers were wounded by gunfire Monday in clashes with demonstrators in north Kosovo, NATO said, in the latest spasm of violence in a months-long standoff with Serbs who reject the country’s 2008 secession from Serbia.
Clashes broke out when NATO peacekeepers began removing roadblocks erected by Serbs in July after Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian-dominated government tried to send border police to the mainly Serb north.
“Two KFOR soldiers were wounded by firearms used by demonstrators,” said Frank Martin, a spokesman for NATO’s 6,250-strong Kosovo Force (KFOR).
“We have used a small amount of rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray,” he said.
The clashes took place in the village of Jagnjenica, north of the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica. Medical officials in the north said 10 Serbs had been treated in hospital for wounds inflicted by rubber bullets.
Kosovo, where 90 percent of the 1.7 million people are ethnic Albanians, declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
But Serbs in a small slice of the north bordering Serbia reject the secession, and the West has struggled to tackle the country’s de facto ethnic partition.
Western diplomats warn that the current impasse, with Serb barricades impeding the work of the EU’s police mission in Kosovo, could cost Serbia official candidate status for membership of the European Union when the bloc meets on December 9.
The EU says the former Yugoslav republic must improve relations with its former southern province if it is to make progress toward accession, but Kosovo is steeped in history and myth for many Serbs who could punish the government in an election due early next year.
Last week, 21 NATO soldiers were wounded, one seriously, in similar clashes.
Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999, when NATO bombed for 78 days to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians in a two-year counter-insurgency war under then-strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
More than 80 countries, including the United States and 22 of the EU’s 27 members, have recognized the state, the last to emerge from the remains of old federal Yugoslavia.
Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Pristina; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Maria Golovnina