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NATO peacekeepers close off roads between Kosovo and Serbia amid more protests
Kosovo Independence 5935941
U.N. police observe the area at the bridge that divides the town as ethnic Serbs protest in Mitrovica, Kosovo, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008. NATO peacekeepers closed off roads between Serbia and northern Kosovo and armed U.N. policemen guarded smoldering border checkpoints Wednesday as thousands of Serbs protested Kosovo's independence. - photo by Associated Press
    KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Kosovo — NATO peacekeepers reopened two demolished border checkpoints between Serbia and northern Kosovo Wednesday as thousands of Serbs protested Kosovo’s independence.
    For three days, Kosovo’s Serbs have shown their anger over Sunday’s declaration of independence by the ethnic Albanian leadership, destroying U.N. and NATO property, setting off small bombs and staging noisy rallies.
    Chanting ‘‘We won’t give up Kosovo,’’ some 3,000 demonstrators marched to a bridge in the tense Serb stronghold of Kosovska Mitrovica dividing the two communities. U.N. policemen sealed off the bridge and NATO helicopters hovered overhead.
    Protesters expressed their anger over the swift recognition of Kosovo’s independence by world powers including the United States, France, Britain — and now Germany. Some carried the flag of Spain, one EU nation that has refused to recognize Kosovo for fear it will encourage its own pro-independence movements.
    Protesters demolished two crossings separating Kosovo from Serbia and torched U.N. border patrol cars Tuesday, but NATO troops reopened the roads Wednesday, which they had sealed off for about 24 hours out of concern Serbian militants could cross over to fight in Kosovo.
    New makeshift border checkpoints will be manned by NATO and U.N. police rather than ethnic Albanian police officers who were there previously, local police officials said.
    Kosovo Serb leader Nebojsa Radulovic demanded earlier Wednesday that the crossings reopen — or ‘‘the Serbs will continue with the protests, with consequences we cannot predict.’’
    Kosovo’s Serbs want the checkpoints removed. They say bread, milk and other basics did not arrive from Serbia on Wednesday because of the border blockade.
    Kosovo, which is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, has not been under Belgrade’s control since 1999, when NATO launched airstrikes to halt a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists. A U.N. mission has governed Kosovo since, with more than 16,000 NATO troops and KFOR, a multiethnic force, policing the province.
    But Serbia — and Kosovo’s Serbs, who make up less than 10 percent of Kosovo’s population — refuse to give up Kosovo, a territory considered the ancient cradle of Serbs’ state and religion.
    Calling Kosovo’s independence a necessary step for stability in the region, Germany recognized Kosovo as a new state Wednesday and sent its defense minister to Kosovo for an official visit. Austria and Norway also announced that their nations are taking steps to recognize Kosovo’s statehood.
    But some — including Russia, China and Spain — back Serbia in rejecting the move as a violation of international law and a dangerous precedent that could encourage separatists elsewhere.
    In Vienna, a Serbian defense official reiterated that Belgrade will not use force to retake Kosovo. But he warned ethnic Albanians against ‘‘provocations.’’
    ‘‘What we fear most are armed Albanian groups operating within the region,’’ Assistant Defense Secretary Dusan Spasojevic said after a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation. ‘‘But we fully trust ... that KFOR troops will protect Serbs.’’
    The European Union on Wednesday formally launched its 1,800-strong mission in Kosovo to help the new nation build its police force and judiciary — a decision Russia sharply criticized.
    Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called it illegal for the EU to send a mission to replace the U.N. without U.N. Security Council approval.
    ‘‘There is bitter irony, to put it mildly, in this name, because the mission will be providing for the rule of law in violation of the highest law — in violation of international law,’’ Lavrov said in Moscow.
    EU special representative Pieter Feith, who will head the Kosovo mission, appealed to Serbs — who have said they would consider the EU mission an ‘‘occupying force’’ — to stop their protests and to build Kosovo alongside ethnic Albanians.
    ‘‘What is important for us is that we invite all of Kosovo’s citizens, especially Serbs, to return to and share lives as soon as possible, especially the part of the population that has second thoughts about it,’’ Feith said in Pristina. ‘‘Kosovo is one: internationally supported and with a vision for the future.’’
    Associated Press writers Thomas Rietig in Berlin; Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna, Austria; Nebi Qena in Pristina and Jovana Gec in Belgrade contributed to this report.

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