Kosovo Serbs take over U.N. court in flashpoint town

MITROVICA, Kosovo (Reuters) – A couple of hundred ethnic Serb protesters took over a United Nations court in the flashpoint town of Mitrovica in north Kosovo on Friday after U.N. police guarding the compound retreated.

Kosovo’s Serb minority, some 120,000 people among 2 million Albanians, reject Kosovo’s February 17 secession from Serbia. The Serbian government has vowed to never accept it and to extend its authority over Serb areas in the territory’s north.

The protesters had been outside the building for several weeks, preventing Albanian court workers from crossing the bridge over the Ibar River that divides Mitrovica into a Serb north and an Albanian south.

“We have returned to a building that belongs to us, and in which we worked until 1999,” said municipal public prosecutor Milan Bigovic.

The takeover of the court took place a few hours before NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is due to visit Mitrovica for meetings with local leaders and NATO commanders.

The crowd, mostly former court employees in the Mitrovica region who were left jobless after NATO expelled Serb forces in 1999, broke through the court’s outer gate and entered the building. They ripped the U.N. plaque off the building and took down the blue-and-white flag, raising a Serbian flag instead.

Ukrainian and Polish special U.N. police offered little resistance. A U.N. source said there were some reports of protesters attacking police with metal bars, but the protesters’ move was largely non-violent.

Riot police were standing by in the area, witnesses said.

“Those who turned to violence in north Mitrovica have crossed one of UNMIK’s red lines,” Joachim Ruecker, head of the U.N. mission in Kosovo, said in a statement. “I have instructed UNMIK police to restore law and order … and ensure that the court house is again under UN control.”

He said he had asked the Serbian government to prevent such attacks, adding that “UNMIK will defend its mandate throughout the whole territory of Kosovo without exception”.

Serbia lost control of the southern province in 1999, when NATO intervened to halt the ethnic cleansing of civilians in a counter-insurgency war, and the United Nations took over.

Kosovo’s secession was backed by the United States and the European Union, which is deploying a supervisory mission to take over some of the U.N.’s tasks.

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