2 NATO peacekeepers wounded in Kosovo, 23 injured

AP News
Posted: Nov 28, 2011 4:57 PM
2 NATO peacekeepers wounded in Kosovo, 23 injured

A German NATO officer and a soldier were shot and wounded and some 23 Austrian and German soldiers injured in clashes with Serb protesters in northern Kosovo throughout Monday after the military alliance's troops used heavy machinery to remove trucks and buses blocking a main road in the tense region, an official said.

The violence near the town of Zubin Potok, some 60 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of Pristina comes after months of tensions, following a decision by Kosovan authorities to extend their authority in areas under de-facto Serb rule.

For months Serbs have used soil, rock and concrete barriers to block any such moves. NATO has threatened to remove the barriers because they cut off supply to a military base in the north. NATO has ultimate authority over security in Kosovo.

German and Austrian peacekeepers involved in the operation fired rubber bullets and tear gas and used water canons and pepper spray to disperse the crowd of Serb protesters trying to stop the soldiers from removing the roadblock.

"The commander of the battalion was shot and another soldier was also wounded," said NATO spokesman, Lt. Col. Uwe Nowitzky.

In Berlin, German military spokesman Lt. Col. Manfred Baumgartner told The Associated Press that the wounded officer and the soldier serve in the Bundeswehr. He said they were shot from the crowd of Serb protesters.

The two were sent to the U.S. military base in eastern Kosovo, Camp Bondsteel, for treatment, NATO said.

At NATO's headquarters in Brussels, the alliance said it was concerned about the violence and said it would carefully monitor developments in the northern country's north.

"The use of violence against (NATO) troops is unacceptable," spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said. "We urge all parties to exercise restraint and cooperate fully with all international actors on the ground to ensure freedom of movement without delay."

At least two injured Serb demonstrators were carried by medical workers to a nearby hospital, an AP reporter at the scene said. Serb media said dozens of Serb demonstrators sought medical help.

AP video shows peacekeepers in riot gear using batons to push a crowd of Serb demonstrators away from barbed wire stretched across the road, and then spraying them with pepper spray.

Some soldiers are seen to climb on top of buses that were initially part of the roadblock, and then fire rubber bullets at the demonstrators. The demonstrators used clubs to hit the peacekeepers and pelted them with rocks.

NATO said its soldiers are now under instructions to fire live ammunition if they come under attack.

On Tuesday more than 20 Portuguese and Hungarian soldiers were injured in a similar operation, one of them seriously.

The latest violence erupted two days before Kosovo and Serbia delegations meet in Brussels for EU-mediated talks to discuss regional cooperation and border management. It also comes a day before the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon presents the Security Council with a regular report about Kosovo.

In the report made public on Monday, Ban said unresolved issues between Kosovo and Serbia "constitute a threat to the region's peace and stability" and warned of "an escalation of tensions and outbreaks of violence."

Serbia's President Boris Tadic appealed to NATO and Kosovo Serbs against violence in northern Kosovo, saying it jeopardizes a compromise between Belgrade and Pristina on the "sustainable" resolution of the crisis.

Kosovo's President Atifete Jahjaga said the violence was caused by Serb extremists sponsored by Belgrade and urged Serbia's authorities to end their "support of criminal structures" in Kosovo's north.

The EU is in charge of technical talks between Kosovo and Serbia that seeks to soften the divide, but no tangible progress has been made so far.

Kosovo authorities said in a statement Monday that the talks were crucial because they take place ahead of the bloc's Dec. 9 decision on whether to grant Serbia candidacy for EU membership and also start talks with Kosovo to eventually remove visa requirements for travel in some EU member states.

Brussels wants to see progress in talks with Kosovo and previous agreements to be implemented before bringing Serbia closer to the EU.

Tensions in Kosovo's north rose over the summer when Kosovo authorities ordered special police units to set up customs on two border crossings with Serbia. Serbs responded by setting one of them on fire and blocking roads.

Many Serbs that live in the north say there should be no border with Serbia because they consider Kosovo to be part of Serbia, while ethnic Albanians want the border to support its 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.

Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 has been recognized by 85 countries including the United States and most members of the European Union. But, many other nations still consider Kosovo's political status to be unresolved and want to see the two sides come to an agreement on resolving their dispute. Serbia does not recognize the new state.


Associated Press writer Nebi Qena in Pristina, Kosovo, David Rising in Berlin, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.