Serbs resume protests against Kosovo's independence

 
 
Several thousand Serbs chanting "Russia, Vladimir Putin!" and "Kosovo is Serbia!" protested peacefully Saturday in the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica and a Serb enclave in the south in a sixth day of demonstrations against Kosovo's independence.

In a sign that Serbia is fast drifting away from the West and toward Russia, which is backing its fierce resistance of Kosovo's secession, hard-line Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica condemned anew the US and other nations that have recognised Kosovo as an independent state.

"If the United States stick to its present position that the fake state of Kosovo exists... all responsibility in the future will be on the United States," Kostunica adviser Branislav Ristivojevic said in a statement.

"The United States is the main culprit ... for all those violent acts," Slobodan Samardzic, Serbia's minister for Kosovo, said earlier.

First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's chosen successor and the man expected to easily win Russia's presidential election March 2, is scheduled to visit Belgrade on Monday.

In Kosovoska Mitrovica, long a flash point of ethnic tensions in Kosovo's troubled north, UN police in riot gear formed a cordon across the main bridge separating the Serb and ethnic Albanian sides as a few protesters hurled firecrackers. Demonstrators waved Serbian and Russian flags and chanted in support of Moscow's refusal to recognize Kosovo's independence.

A NATO helicopter hovered above the bridge to monitor the protest.

On Friday, angry demonstrators hurled stones, glass bottles and firecrackers at UN forces protecting the bridge. Saturday's protest was far less violent.

Kosovo's minority Serbs have staged protests daily since the territory's ethnic Albanian leadership proclaimed independence from Serbia last week.

The Serbs, who represent about 10 per cent of the region's two million people, have been displaying their anger by destroying UN and NATO property as well.

EU representative Pieter Feith said Saturday he recalled his staff from Kosovo's restive north. "We hope that conditions will soon allow us to resume our activities," he told reporters.

In the southern Serb enclave of Strpce, about 100 Serbs staged a peaceful march Saturday.

Carrying Serbia's blue, white and red flags, the protesters walked to a nearby church and rang the bells to sound their disapproval of Kosovo's statehood. Some carried posters reading "Kosovo is Serbia" and "Kosovo will never be Albania."

There, too, anger at Washington and solidarity with Moscow were on display.

"The whole nation is angry," said Sinisa Tasic, one of the protest organizers. "We are furious with the Americans. Wherever they go they create problems."

Added Radojko Kecic, 48: "For the first time ever, Serbia is not alone - it has Russia by its side. Sooner or later, Serbia will get Kosovo back."

In the Serbian capital, Belgrade, the chief state prosecutor said Saturday that authorities were hunting for participants in riots Thursday night that targeted the US Embassy and other foreign compounds and Western commercial interests.

"We are collecting evidence and are identifying the culprits," Slobodan Radovanovic said in a statement.

Police said they arrested nearly 200 rioters Thursday the worst anti-Western violence seen on Belgrade streets since the ouster of former strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

Rioters protesting international recognition of Kosovo's independence torched several offices of the US Embassy's consular section and attacked the missions of Germany, Belgium, Turkey, Croatia and other countries. One person died and more than 150 were injured in the violence, in which nearly 100 stores were looted.

Authorities on Saturday identified the victim as Zoran Vujovic, 21, of the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad. Serbian media said Vujovic was originally from the Kosovo town of Caglavica, but had fled to central Serbia in the wake of Kosovo's 1998-99 war between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian separatists.

On Friday, the US State Department ordered nonessential embassy employees and families of American diplomats in Belgrade to leave Serbia. "We are not sufficiently confident that they are safe here," US Ambassador Cameron Munter said in an interview.

The decision to implement what is known as an "ordered departure" will affect some of 80-100 Americans who work at the embassy. It was not clear how many of their dependents would be affected.

The US and the European Union have warned Serbia to boost protection of foreign diplomats and missions, and the UN Security Council has unanimously condemned the attacks.  (AP)
 
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