ZVECAN, Kosovo: The situation in northern Kosovo remained tense Tuesday as ethnic Serbs continued to gather in front of a town hall in Zvecan after violent clashes with NATO-led peacekeepers left 30 soldiers injured.
The NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) soldiers wearing full riot gear have put a metal barrier around the municipal building in Zvecan and are stopping several hundred Serbs from entering, an AFP journalist at the scene said.
Three armoured vehicles of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo police — whose presence always stirs controversy in Serb-majority northern areas — remained parked in front of the town hall.
Serbs — who account for about six percent of Kosovo's population — boycotted last month's elections in northern towns where they are in a majority, allowing ethnic Albanians to take control of local councils despite a minuscule turnout of under 3.5 percent of voters.
Many Serbs are demanding the withdrawal of Kosovo police forces, as well as the ethnic Albanian mayors they do not consider their true representatives.
Tensions flared after Serbs tried to force their way into the Zvecan town hall on Monday, but were repelled as Kosovo police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.
KFOR at first tried to separate protesters from the police, but later started to disperse the crowd using shields and batons. Protesters responded by hurling rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails at the soldiers.
A total of 30 peacekeepers were wounded in the clashes, including "fractures and burns from improvised explosive incendiary devices", KFOR said in a statement.
Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic said 52 demonstrators were hurt, three of them "seriously". Five Serbs were arrested for taking part in the clashes, according to Kosovo police.
KFOR said the soldiers responded "to the unprovoked attacks of a violent and dangerous crowd" whilst carrying out its mandate in an impartial manner.
"To avoid the clashes between the parties and to minimise the risk of the escalation, KFOR peace-keepers prevented threats to the lives of Kosovo Serbs and Kosovo Albanians," KFOR said.
"Both parties need to take full responsibility for what happened and prevent any further escalation, rather than hide behind false narratives."
NATO strongly condemned the "unprovoked" attacks against KFOR troops, adding that such actions were "totally unacceptable".
Belgrade placed its army on high alert last week when tensions flared, and ordered forces towards the frontier with Kosovo.
Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic announced Tuesday meetings in Belgrade with ambassadors of the so-called Quint — five powerful NATO members that focus on the Western Balkans — but also with representatives of Russia and China.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and Belgrade and its key allies Beijing and Moscow have refused to recognise it, effectively preventing Kosovo from having a seat at the United Nations.
Serbs in Kosovo remained largely loyal to Belgrade, especially in the north, where they make up a majority and reject every move by Pristina to consolidate its control over the region.