Kosovo's NATO-led peacekeepers confronted crowds of angry Serbs on Thursday as they tried to remove Serb roadblocks in the volatile north of the country.
For nearly three months, Kosovo Serbs have been blocking roads to stop the country's ethnic Albanian leadership from extending its control over the part of the country populated mostly by ethnic Serbs. The Serbs reject Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia and consider the region a part of the larger Serbian nation.
After Kosovo Serb leaders refused NATO's demand to allow freedom of movement, the peacekeepers in riot gear moved in at dawn Thursday against hundreds of Serbs at roadblocks consisting of parked trucks, rocks, mud and logs.
The 5,500-strong NATO-led peacekeeping mission said some roadblocks were removed and vehicle checkpoints set up.
"The overall aim is to improve the rule of law situation in this part of Kosovo," the mission said in a joint statement with the European Union rule of law mission in Kosovo. "There have been some minor incidents," it said, adding that some individuals were briefly detained.
During the pushing and shouting between the two groups, the troops occasionally used pepper spray against the demonstrators, who sat down on the road some 10 kilometers (6 miles) northwest of the divided town of Mitrovica. Several dozen protesters sought medical help because of the tear gas, Serbian state TV said.
NATO Cmd. Frank Martins told The Associated Press that the force, supported by EU police, is "in full control" of the area and that it was "able to secure freedom of movement."
Martins declined to comment on reports that at least eight peacekeepers were injured in scuffles with Serb protesters.
The peacekeepers used loudspeakers to urge the crowds to disperse or force would be used, while Serb leaders urged the demonstrators to remain peaceful. NATO's unmanned drones could be seen flying overhead.
During the standoff, Kosovo Serbs further enforced the barricades with additional logs and trucks.
Local Serb official Slavisa Ristic pledged the Serbs will remain on the barricades "for a month if needed."
"We are not leaving until we see their backs," he told the protesters.
At a meeting Wednesday, Kosovo Serb leaders remained defiant, saying they will not allow free travel in the region. They said they could only offer "controlled" lifting of the blockade for peacekeepers' "humanitarian" supplies.
They appealed to Serbia to come to the rescue of Kosovo Serbs. NATO chased Serb troops out of Kosovo in 1999 after Serb's brutal crackdown against separatist ethnic Albanians.
Serbian President Boris Tadic urged restraint from both NATO and the Serbs in Kosovo, suggesting that local leaders are influenced by nationalist parties from Belgrade.
He warned the Serbs "not to react violently at any price, because that would lead to disaster."
In July, ethnic Albanian authorities deployed their security forces to two border checkpoints in northern Kosovo to enforce a trade ban with Serbia. Serbs reacted by blocking roads and triggering clashes with Kosovo police that left one police officer dead.
Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade.
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