Ten Serbs, 10 policemen injured in Kosovo clashes

PRISTINA, Oct 13 (Reuters) - Ten Serbs and 10 police officers were injured on Wednesday when police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd that became hostile after raids on suspected smugglers in a volatile area of Kosovo populated by the Serb minority.

Kosovo police said officers met resistance with firearms and grenades in Mitrovica as they carried out an operation to seize smuggled goods in several towns on Wednesday.

Police chief Samedin Mehmeti said 10 officers were injured in the clashes. Interior Minister Xelal Svecla said the police operation was "not directed against any nationality".

"Most of those arrested are Albanians, most of those wanted are Albanians," Svecla told a news conference in Pristina.

Serbian state TV showed people in northern Mitrovica running away from tear gas and a car on fire. Similar clashes were reported in the nearby town of Zvecan.

At an urgent meeting in Serbia's border town of Raska, President Aleksandar Vucic, flanked by the defence and interior ministers and military commanders, sought to assure Serbs from northern Kosovo that Belgrade supported them.

"In that struggle in which we have to protect the lives of our children ... we will not only protect them, but we will win," Vucic told emotional Serbs.

He did not specify the scope of Serbia's support.

The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called for an immediate end to the violence, adding that all "open issues must be addressed through the EU-facilitated dialogue" between Belgrade and Pristina.

"Unilateral and uncoordinated actions that endanger stability are unacceptable," Borrell said on Twitter.

Belgrade and Pristina agreed to an EU-sponsored dialogue in 2013, but little progress has been made.

Zlatan Elek, the head of a hospital in northern Mitrovica, said 10 people had been injured, one with a gunshot wound to the shoulder blade.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic urged NATO, which has 3,000 peacekeepers in Kosovo, to step in and stop the violence.

Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti said: "Crime and criminal groups will not be tolerated and will be fought. We will fight and stop the smuggling."

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but around 50,000 Serbs who remain in the northern part of the country refuse to recognise the Pristina authorities and see Belgrade as their capital.

Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Editing by Ivana Sekularac, Peter Graff and Giles Elgood

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