Dozens hurt as Serbs go on rampage in Kosovo

Hundreds of UN police and Nato troops came under fire from Serb protesters yesterday in the worst violence since Kosovo declared independence a month ago. The clashes followed attempts by a UN force backed by Nato troops from K-For to retake a court building seized by Serbs in the divided town of Mitrovica last week.

The violence, which left 70 civilians, more than 60 UN police officers and a dozen peacekeepers injured, broke out early in the morning after the raid had evicted more than 50 Serbs who had been demanding that the court be returned to Serbia's jurisdiction.

Angry Serb protesters rushed to the building, threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the security forces and set several of their vehicles on fire. Police and K-For soldiers fired teargas and stun grenades into the mob.

Witnesses said the area resembled a war zone. Nato said its troops came under automatic gunfire on the north side of the Ibar river which divides the town between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs. Nato helicopters hovered over the scene, prompting the Serbs to turn on an air-raid siren.

A Serb hospital director said three Serbs were seriously hurt, one shot through the head "by a sniper". A Nato spokesman said warning shots were fired into the air, not into the midst of rioters. In the Kosovo capital of Pristina, a later Nato statement condemned "the lethal violence, including direct fire by the mob" in Mitrovica.

Northern Mitrovica is the home of the largest Serb community in Kosovo. Serbs, backed by Belgrade, fiercely oppose the independence of the breakaway province, run by the UN since 1999. Some 120,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo.

Their effort to take over the UN court building was widely seen as part of Belgrade's plan to create parallel institutions in the enclaves populated by Serbs. Since 17 February, Belgrade has pushed for control over a railway in the north, and supported Serbs who withdrew from the multi-ethnic Kosovo police force.

There have been persistent reports in Belgrade of a secret "action plan" devised by the nationalist government of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

He condemned the use of force against Serbs who were opposing the setting-up of a "false state" and he accused Nato of "implementing a policy of force against Serbia".

In Belgrade, Serbia's President Boris Tadic appealed yesterday to the UN and Nato not to use "excessive force" and called on Serbs to refrain from provocations. Mr Tadic said the clashes coincided with the fourth anniversary of ethnic Albanian attacks on Kosovo Serbs. Nineteen people were killed and many Serb houses and churches in Kosovo were destroyed during the weeks of violence in 2004.

The EU called for restraint but Russia, which backs Belgrade on the Kosovo issue, called for a return to international talks on the status of Kosovo.

The Russian Foreign Ministry statement said violence was a result of the territory's unilateral declaration of independence.