MITROVICA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovo police fired tear gas and used batons Sunday to disperse hundreds of ethnic Albanians upset because minority Serbs had reinforced a barricade in the center of the city of Mitrovica.
At least seven police officers were injured and five cars set ablaze by protesters, police spokesman Avni Zahiti said. Protesters had tried to break through police lines to reach the main bridge over the river that divides the city between the southern ethnic Albanian district and the predominantly Serb north.
"There was an attempt by the protesters to pass the police cordon placed here on the bridge," Zahiti said. "The police were forced to use means at their disposal to manage a crowd that turned violent." He said protesters were throwing bricks and rocks at the police.
The local police then called for assistance from the NATO-led peacekeeping force to contain the crowd, said Lt. Col. John Cogbill of Richmond, Virginia, and U.S. armored vehicles blocked access to the bridge. The alliance leads a 5,000-strong peacekeeping force in Kosovo.
U.S. soldiers supported by German police in riot gear from the European Union's rule of law mission then cordoned off the bridge. The violence comes just days after Serbs reinforced an earthen barrier set up to block ethnic Albanians from crossing the bridge. Kosovo leaders quickly condemned the Serbs for a move seen as an attempt to deepen the division of Kosovo along ethnic lines.
Minority Serbs in the region have often clashed with the NATO peacekeepers, accusing them of supporting Kosovo's 2008 secession from Serbia. But Sunday's flare up was the first in more than four years in which ethnic Albanians rioted in Mitrovica.
Kosovo's ethnic-Albanian government and Serbia are engaged in EU-led talks to overcome their differences. But despite some progress the two sides remain far apart. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The U.S. and the majority of the 28 EU countries recognize the new state, but Serbia rejects Kosovo's independence, as do many Serbs now living in Kosovo.
The NATO peacekeeping force came to Kosovo in 1999 after a three-month alliance bombing campaign pushed out Serb forces from the predominantly ethnic Albanian province.