Serbia endorses bomb attack on Kosovo border

  • @peterpopham

Kosovo's honeymoon as an independent state was rudely shattered yesterday when hundreds of Serbs converged on two border checkpoints separating Serbia from the newly free state and destroyed them with plastic explosives.

United Nations peacekeepers evacuated by helicopter the police officers manning the checkpoints, and the vandals then used a tractor to push the metal sheds that functioned as checkpoint buildings down a hill and into a river.

The checkpoints were at Jarnije and Banja, 20 kilometres north of the divided city of Mitrovica.

Serb authorities in the four districts implicitly endorsed the attacks, calling on Belgrade to "urgently take steps" to protect Serbia's territorial integrity – in other words, to take military action to prevent the writ of the newly independent state extending to Serb majority areas. The Serbian Kosovo minister, Slobodan Samardzic, said "today's action is in accordance with general government policies".

It was widely predicted in the run-up to independence that the four Serb-dominated districts contiguous with Serbia in the north-west corner of Kosovo might issue a counter-declaration of partition from the Albanian-majority Kosovo. That has not happened, but some Western officials in Pristina said that the border attacks brought de facto partition closer.

Veton Elshani, a spokesman for Kosovo's police force, said of the attacks on the border posts: "It was very dangerous and the police had to withdraw and call for help from Nato peacekeepers."

Kosovo is some 90 per cent ethnic Albanian, but the four districts, including Mitrovica, are mostly populated by Serbs, who are bitterly resentful of the fact that the province known as the historic heartland of "Old Serbia" should have broken free.

Last night, French and American troops belonging to the KFOR peacekeeping mission were said to be attempting to seal the vandalised crossing points. The top UN official in Kosovo, Joachim Ruecker, condemned the attacks. "Any violence is completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated," he said.

It was obvious on the road heading north from Pristina towards Mitrovica that something had gone badly wrong. Streams of white UN vehicles, including armoured personnel carriers (APCs), sped north,and camouflaged APCs were seen moving in the same direction. Traffic in the ethnic Albanian part of central Kosovo was badly disrupted by impromptu KFOR checkpoints.

The violence extended to Mitrovica north, the Serb quarter of the city, where for a second day thousands of protesters marched through the town to the bridge that separates the two communities. Monday's demonstration had been peaceful, but yesterday they used rocks and sticks to vandalise UN vehicles as they marched.

The previous night several loud explosions were heard in town, one of them damaging several cars near a UN building.

Mitrovica has long been the most sensitive corner of Kosovo, where hundreds of houses were destroyed and dozens of people died in ethnic attacks across the divide in 2004.

Kosovo's Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, insisted that there was no cause for alarm. "Everything is under the control of the Nato authorities, Kosovo police and the United Nations," he said. "Kosovo is integral, inseparable, and Kosovo territory is recognised internationally."