ZVECAN, Kosovo (Reuters) - At least three Kosovo Serbs and two NATO soldiers were wounded in a gunfight on Friday as peacekeepers tried to dismantle roadblocks erected last year by local Serbs, a Reuters witness and NATO said.
NATO troops in the Kosovo Force (KFOR) fired tear gas and small arms and some protesters fired back with handguns.
The troops, in armoured personnel carriers, were confronted by hundreds of Serbs who pelted them with stones near roadblocks in villages outside the town of Zvecan in a Serb-dominated northern area of Kosovo.
The roadblocks are among the last on major roads yet to be dismantled by KFOR. They were erected as part of a long-running Serb campaign to prevent the government of Albanian-majority independent Kosovo from imposing its rule in the area.
“KFOR confirms 2 wounded soldiers during the removal operation,” KFOR said in a statement. “KFOR has established numerous vehicle check points and secured areas for safety reasons.”
One wounded soldier was evacuated as NATO troops continued to patrol the area in big numbers. Three protesters were detained by NATO and handed over to the European Union police and judiciary mission (EULEX) in Kosovo.
Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, is 90 percent ethnic Albanian. But Serbs opposed to independence dominate in a small swathe of the north bordering Serbia which continues to function as part of the Serbian state, resisting efforts by the Kosovo government to extend its authority.
A Reuters witness said extra KFOR troops arrived to reinforce the troops from Germany and the United States after the initial clashes and were deployed on hills overlooking the village of Rudare. Several NATO helicopters flew over the area.
Kosovo Serbs set up barricades at border crossings with Serbia last year after authorities in Pristina, the EU’s police and judiciary mission EULEX tried to establish their presence.
A Kosovo policeman was killed in an ambush and several civilians and NATO troops were injured in clashes that erupted over the last few months.
Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga, who backs the efforts to remove the roadblocks, condemned the attacks on NATO troops.
Health authorities in the Serb-controlled north of the city of Mitrovica said three Serbs were hospitalised and others were treated for slight injuries and discharged.
Krstimir Pantic, mayor of the Serb-controlled part of Mitrovica, said the local council and “the people” had warned KFOR and EULEX not to enter the area under Serb control after the latest clashes.
“We have decided to tell them that the (Serb part of) Mitrovica is not open for them ... that we cannot guarantee them safety,” Pantic said.
By 4 p.m. (1400 GMT) NATO troops had cleared the two major roadblocks and roads were open for traffic. Local Serbs said they would build new barricades.
Earlier this year, Belgrade sought to mend ties with Kosovo and agreed to open border crossings and establish cooperation with Pristina on issues like driving licences, land registration and school diplomas, to help secure European Union candidacy.
The outgoing pro-Western authorities in Belgrade accused nationalists from the four Serb municipalities in Kosovo’s north of stirring up trouble ahead of Serbian elections last month, won by rightist presidential challenger Tomislav Nikolic.
Oliver Ivanovic, Serbia’s state secretary for Kosovo in the outgoing government, said KFOR had made “a risky move” by trying to remove the roadblocks and said the situation in northern Kosovo was “volatile and may escalate by the end of the day”.
“I cannot understand what motivated KFOR to make such a move ... except that it had an intention to reinforce Pristina’s position ahead of the resumption of talks (with Serbia) this year,” he said.
Nikolic, a former ultra-nationalist, took an oath of office on Thursday. He pledged he would maintain Serbia’s EU bid, but would never renounce Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia.
Independent Kosovo has been recognised by 90 countries, including the United States and 22 of the EU’s 27 member states.
Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Robin Pomeroy