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By Stefan Bos
Budapest
17 March 2008

Officials say three U.N. police officers and two NATO soldiers were wounded in an explosion in Kosovo as they stormed a courthouse occupied by Serb protesters who oppose the region's breakaway from Serbia. At least 20 demonstrators were also injured. Stefan Bos reports for VOA that the clashes in Kosovo's ethnically divided town of Mitrovica are the worst since Kosovo's declaration of independence last month.

Serb protesters throw stones at NATO peacekeeping troops, right, in Mitrovica, 17 Mar 2008
Serb protesters throw stones at NATO peacekeeping troops, right, in Mitrovica, 17 Mar 2008
Local police said United Nations and NATO personnel were injured in an explosion when they recaptured the U.N. court building in the northern town of Mitrovica. It was occupied Friday by Serb protesters opposing Kosovo's independence. The blast was apparently caused by a hand grenade activated during the takeover at the courthouse yard.

Attempts to recapture the premises began with NATO-led peacekeepers surrounding the building in armored vehicles. Witnesses said U.N. police backed by NATO troops then stormed the court, evicting Serb demonstrators.

About 500 mainly Ukrainian U.N. police were involved in the dawn raid, backed by hundreds of French troops. Thousands of stone-hurling Serbs were seen near the courthouse clashing with riot police backed up by NATO soldiers, who used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the crowd.

Witnesses said rioters attacked several U.N. vehicles, breaking doors and freeing at least 10 of dozens of detainees from the raid. Smoke was seen billowing from at least two transport vehicles of the 16,000-member NATO peace force in Kosovo, KFOR. Medical officials claimed more than 100 people were treated for the effects of tear gas.

The clashes were the worst in Kosovo since its ethnic-Albanian dominated government declared independence from Serbia last month.

Former European Balkan envoy and current Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt warns that Mitrovica has become a flashpoint because it is an ethnically divided town separating Albanian and Serb communities.

"I was there in the bridge of Mitrovica. It is a bridge between two societies that have very few in common. To overcome that division of Kosovo. This will take a long time, we will need a lot of patience," he said.

Kosovo has been under U.N. control since 1999, when NATO bombings forced Serb forces to end their crackdown on the independence seeking, ethnic-Albanian majority.

Belgrade considers the territory as the cradle of Serbian religion and history. Serbia says Kosovo's declaration of independence was illegal under international law.

But most European Union nations and the United States have recognized Kosovo as an independent state.

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