Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Clashes as Kosovo opposition protests over Serbia talks
By Fatos Bytyci
PRISTINA (Reuters) - Police in Kosovo fired teargas and made dozens of arrests on Monday in clashes with opposition activists demonstrating against a new push by the European Union to improve ties between Serbia and its former southern province.
The unrest followed a meeting last week in Brussels between Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and his Serbian counterpart, Ivica Dacic.
It was the first meeting at such a level since majority-Albanian Kosovo declared independence in 2008.
The EU says the two must normalise relations and solve a range of practical problems arising from Serbia's refusal to recognise Kosovo if they are to make further progress towards membership of the bloc.
But hardliners in Kosovo say they have nothing to discuss with Serbia, which was bombed by NATO in 1999 to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians by Serb forces under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic during a two-year counter-insurgency war.
Chanting "thieves" and "shame", up to 200 activists of the opposition Vetevendosje (Self-determination) party tried to blockade Thaci's office in protest at his meeting with Dacic, who was Milosevic's wartime spokesman.
A banner read, "No bargain with Serbia!"
Police drove them back with pepper spray and teargas. Sixty people were arrested and 18 officers were injured when protesters pelted them with stones, police said.
"This was a shameful meeting (in Brussels)," said Vetevendosje deputy leader Shpend Ahmeti. "After all the crimes in Kosovo, no one has taken responsibility or apologised."
The party said several activists were beaten by police and treated in hospital.
EU-mediated talks are expected to resume in November, focusing on a range of practical problems arising from the lack of diplomatic relations, such as energy supplies, a telephone country code for Kosovo and management of their joint border.
The most contentious issue will be Kosovo's north, a mainly Serb-populated region propped up by Belgrade in a de facto ethnic partition of the country.
Thaci called the protesters "isolated voices".
"The voices of these individuals are always opposed to progress in Kosovo and they follow the same agenda as the opponents of Kosovo's independence," he told a cabinet meeting.
The EU, which made Serbia a candidate for membership of the bloc in March, wants Belgrade to loosen its grip on the north, but the Serbs there refuse to have anything to do with Thaci's government in Pristina and function largely as part of the Serbian state.
Kosovo has been recognised by more than 90 countries, including the United States and 22 of the EU's 27 members.
Serbia, backed by U.N. Security Council veto holder Russia, says it will never recognise the territory of 1.7 million people as sovereign.
(Editing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Michael Roddy)