ZUBIN POTOK: Nato-led peacekeepers unleashed volleys of tear gas Thursday at Serbs trying to stop them dismantling barricades in northern Kosovo near the border with Serbia, leaving dozens needing treatment.
The KFOR troops were trying to disperse a crowd of up to 500 protesters near the main barricade at Zubin Potok. However the Serbs simply moved away a few metres until the gas dispersed before returning, a reporter said.
KFOR said eight soldiers were injured while a correspondent at the scene said the effects of the gas left dozens of Serbs also needing treatment. The eight troops “were injured by tear gas, smoke and fire extinguishers,” KFOR's press office said in a statement.
The Austria Press Agency (APA) said that two of the injured peacekeepers were Austrians. It quoted Austrian defence ministry spokesman Michael Bauer as saying that the Serbs at the barricades were “very aggressive and ready for violence”.
The EU rule of law mission EULEX, which was carrying out the operation to remove the roadblock jointly with KFOR, said “barricades were removed and vehicle check points... set up” around the Brnjak border crossing.
“There have been some minor incidents,” it added without giving any details other than to say some people were briefly detained.
Earlier, two convoys of at least 100 vehicles of the Kosovo peacekeeping forces (KFOR) had moved towards the Brnjak border crossing.
The convoys stopped a few hundred meters before the blocks on the two roads leading to the crossing as several hundred local Serbs gathered at the barricades.
German and Austrian soldiers equipped with anti-riot gear urged Serbs staging a sit-down protest on the road to go home.
“Go home, otherwise we will be obliged to use force,” a KFOR representative said in Serbian over a public address system, before the troops launched the tear gas attack.
Protesters on the barricade at Zubin Potok stressed that they would remain but not resort to violence.
“We will stay here, we're not thinking about leaving. We are protesting peacefully, we will not attack anyone,” 28-year-old Nenad said.
Serbs in northern Kosovo have erected 16 barricades on the roads leading to two border crossings including Brnjak after Kosovo authorities said in July they wanted to replace ethnic Serb customs officials at the border with ethnic Albanians.
Pristina said the Serb customs officers were flouting a ban imposed on imports from Serbia as part of a trade dispute with Belgrade.—AFP