U.N. police return to tense Kosovo Serb stronghold

MITROVICA, Kosovo (Reuters) – U.N. police in Kosovo returned to the Serb stronghold of north Mitrovica on Wednesday with heavy NATO support, having pulled out two days ago after deadly riots by Serbs opposed to secession.

A Ukrainian U.N. police officer was killed in the clashes, the worst since Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority declared independence last month. Ukraine on Wednesday demanded an investigation of the U.N. operation.

About 25 U.N. police officers returned at midday to Mitrovica with their Kosovo Serb colleagues.

NATO withdrew some French and Belgian troops from the yard of the police station and court, but left others in armored personnel carriers to guard the perimeter behind coils of razor-wire.

“We are trying to establish the rule of law by putting UNMIK police and the Kosovo Police Service back on joint patrols,” U.N. regional police commander David MacClean told Reuters.

He said the NATO-led peace force KFOR would “slowly” hand back control of the premises to police depending on the security situation. “Hopefully that will take place maybe tomorrow.”

They had pulled out with hundreds of Ukrainian and Polish special units on Monday after police and NATO troops came under fire from automatic weapons and hand grenades.

Some U.N. special police were trapped in the compound for hours as Serb rioters pinned back NATO peacekeepers. Ukrainian Ihor Kynal, 25, bled to death from shrapnel wounds.

Visiting Kosovo, Ukraine Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko said four hours had passed before the order was given for police “to use their weapons to protect the life of our subordinates.”

He called for an investigation of the U.N. operation.

“Our personnel were not properly protected from extremists who clearly existed and were heavily armed,” Lutsenko told reporters after meeting Kosovo’s U.N. authorities.

He also questioned the timing of the operation, which coincided with the tense fourth anniversary of Albanian riots in which hundreds of Serb homes were razed and 19 people died.

“ROCK SOLID PROOF”

Around 120,000 Serbs live in the territory among 2 million Albanians, who had the backing of the major Western powers for last month’s secession. Almost half the Serb community lives in a northern strip backing onto Serbia, with the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica as its centre.

The violence, sparked by a U.N. operation to retake the U.N. court from Serbs who had seized it three days earlier, highlighted the risk of the new state’s ethnic partition.

It underscored the challenge facing the United Nations and European Union as the latter tries to take over responsibility for law and order across the entire territory.

U.N. officials alleged the involvement of the Serbian Interior Ministry in the unrest.

“We have rock solid proof that there were officials of the (Serbian) Ministry of Interior present at the courthouse,” U.N. mission spokesman Alexander Ivanko told a news conference.

For almost two days NATO was the sole authority in north Mitrovica, securing U.N. buildings and guarding the Ibar river that divides the town’s Serbs and Albanians.

Backed by Russia, Serbia has rejected Kosovo’s independence nine years after NATO bombs drove out Serb forces to halt the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in a two-year counter-insurgency.

Belgrade is strengthening Serb parallel structures and telling Kosovo Serbs to sever ties with the capital Pristina. Diplomats say it wants to cement ethnic partition.

Check Also

Can Turkey help in Ukraine crisis?

Moscow is likely to welcome a Turkish mediation effort if it serves to restrain Ukraine …