Scores injured in Kosovo clashes

UN police in Kosovo fired teargas and rubber bullets during clashes on Saturday with ethnic Albanians protesting against a UN plan they say falls short of full independence from Serbia.

Hospital officials said they had treated 70 people, including four who were seriously wounded.

Fourteen people were arrested as Kosovo and UN riot police advanced on hundreds of demonstrators who were hurling stones and bottles.

The clashes, a repeat of riots in November, underscored Western fears of what the United States described last week as a possible "breakdown in order" if a decision on the Albanian majority's demand for independence does not come soon.

A UN plan unveiled this month would, if adopted by the UN Security Council, set the territory on the path to statehood, eight years after NATO bombs drove out Serb forces and the United Nations took control.

But some among Kosovo's 90-percent ethnic Albanian majority are angry at the plan's provisions for a powerful European overseer and self-government for the 100,000 remaining Serbs.

The protesters called for an independence referendum and rejected talks with Serbia, which in 1998-99 killed 10,000 Albanians and expelled 800,000 in a two-year war with rebels.

"Freedom does not come in packages," they chanted, in reference to the plan drafted by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari following months of Serb-Albanian talks in 2006.

Kosovo Albanian leaders condemned the violence. "We said there was no reason to protest, because the process is going in the right direction," said a government spokeswoman.

West vs. Russia

Serbia opposes the amputation of its medieval heartland, but the Albanians living there reject any return to Serb rule and are impatient to end eight years of UN-imposed limbo.

Washington and the European Union back Ahtisaari's blueprint and hope the UN Security Council will adopt it by June.

UN veto holder Russia, however, repeated on Saturday that it would only back a solution that was also acceptable to fellow-Orthodox nation Serbia.

"If we see that one of the parties is not happy with the proposed solution, we should not support that decision," Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a conference in Munich.

Ahtisaari has invited Serbia and the Kosovo Albanians to a final round of talks in Vienna from February 21 and hopes to present the plan to the UN Security Council in late March.

The West has already delayed the process twice to avoid radicalising Serbia. Ahtisaari said on Friday he saw no chance of the two sides agreeing, "even if I negotiated all my life".

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned against security gaps in Kosovo during a sensitive transfer of policing tasks this year.

The United Nations has been reducing its UNMIK police force in Kosovo which is due to be replaced later this year by EU police. Several NATO nations also want to start winding down the alliance's separate 16,000-plus peace force there.

"It is important that under all circumstances there should be an adequate police force, be it UNMIK or part of the EU mission," de Hoop Scheffer told a small group of reporters on the margins of a security conference in Munich.

"It is important we don't see gaps. Because if there were gaps, that would immediately have consequences for KFOR," he said of the NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR).

[Source: One News by Reuters, New Zeland, 11Feb07]

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