95 Hurt as Kosovar Serbs Attack UN

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Kosovo -- Untied Nations police stormed a courthouse in northern Kosovo on Monday to remove Serb protesters occupying the building, sparking clashes that injured dozens of peacekeepers and demonstrators.

Outside, hundreds of Serb protesters hurled rocks and hand grenades at UN police and NATO troops, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades.

It was the worst violence in Kosovo since its majority ethnic Albanians declared independence from Serbia a month ago.

NATO and the UN issued a joint statement in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, condemning "lethal violence, including direct fire by a mob" in the Serb-controlled part of the town of Kosovska Mitrovica.

Serbia's main ally, Russia, blamed the "illegitimate" secession of Kosovo for the rioting and urged the international police contingent to show restraint.

"A turn of events which leads to violence and clashes cannot be allowed," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "The international presence should show restraint and act strictly in accordance with its [United Nations] mandate."

The violence began at dawn when several hundred UN special police, backed by NATO peacekeepers, stormed a UN court that had been seized by Serbs on Friday to protest the Kosovo's declaration of independence, and arrested dozens.

Hundreds of Serbs fought back with stones, grenades and firecrackers, forcing the UN police to pull back. Rioters attacked three UN vehicles, breaking doors and freeing around 10 of those detained in the raid, witnesses said.

NATO said its troops had come under automatic weapons fire.

"We used automatic weapons to respond but fired only warning shots," French spokesman Etienne du Fayet de la Tour said. "We shot in the air, not into the crowd."

The protesters have been trying to take control of local institutions that have been run by the UN since the end of the war in Kosovo in 1999.

The Serbs hurled stones, hand grenades and Molotov cocktails as they clashed with peacekeepers trying to keep rioters away from the courthouse.

The United Nations said at least 25 police officers were hurt.

At least 70 Serb demonstrators, including one struck in the eye by a bullet, were also injured, hospital officials said.

In Mitrovica, Serbia's government minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, described the action by UN police as "brutal and inadmissible."

In Belgrade, Serbian President Boris Tadic urged the UN and NATO to refrain from using force and called on the Serbs not to provoke the international forces. He urged Kosovar Serb leaders to do all they could to restore calm.

The European Union expressed concern about the violence and called for restraint.

In Belgrade, police deployed near government buildings and Western embassies, apparently fearing that rioting could erupt in the Serbian capital.

In their effort to seize local institutions, Kosovar Serbs have also been trying to take control of a stretch of rail line in northern Kosovo, in defiance of Kosovo's government.

Predominantly ethnic Albanian, Kosovo has been under UN control since 1999, when NATO launched an air war to stop Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

Serbia, which considers the territory its historic and religious heartland, says Kosovo's declaration of independence is illegal under international law.