PRISTINA, Kosovo – Well-organized Serb gangs torched buildings Tuesday along the border between Serbia and Kosovo, in a defiant rejection of the breakaway province’s declaration of independence.
Huge flames and walls of black smoke engulfed border posts, United Nations police and customs offices, in the most serious violence to date over Kosovo’s unilateral split from Serbia, declared by the ethnic Albanian government Sunday.
U.N. police, who have helped administer Kosovo for the past nine years, were forced to flee, and NATO troops rushed to the scene to restore order.
The Serbian militants appeared to be enforcing their own partition of Northern Kosovo, where many Serbs live, from the rest of the Albanian-dominated province by erasing the more official borders.
Although Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica on Monday called for restraint from Serbs, his government Tuesday seemed to encourage the groups wreaking havoc along the frontier.
Slobodan Samardzic, Serbia’s minister for Kosovo, said the central government was not behind the gangs’ vandalism. But, he said, Serbia fully intends to take over customs functions in Northern Kosovo.
“Today’s action is in accordance with general policy of the government to take over customs policy wherever it can in Kosovo, as well as all other policies, all other responsibilities. That is simply a process that is not going to be stopped,” he told Belgrade’s B92 television.
“We saved the face. We saved a part of Kosovo,” Samardzic said. “Serbia will never recognize the independence of Kosovo.”
He denied Serbia was attempting to slice off Northern Kosovo. But, he said, “We preserved a part of Kosovo.”
Recognition of an independent Kosovo, he said, was “total madness.”
The U.S. and many European countries have recognized the new country, but Russia, Serbia and others say Kosovo’s revolt is illegal.