Mitrovica: An explosion tore through a Serb protest in an ethnically divided town of Kosovo on Friday, fatally injuring one man and leaving about 11 others with shrapnel wounds, police and doctors said.
It was the latest in a series of violent incidents in Mitrovica over the last two years, as minority Serbs in northern Kosovo have rejected the country`s independence from Serbia and bridle against the majority ethnic Albanian authority in Pristina.
Kosovo police said a hand grenade went off Friday in the crowd of about 1,000 Serbs protesting the opening of a civil registry office run by Pristina in the Serb-dominated part of Mitrovica.
Shots also were heard at the gathering, and about 11 people were injured in the blast, police said. NATO-led peacekeepers and European Union officers were also deployed to the site.
One man died during surgery for chest and heart injuries at a hospital in town, doctors said. They identified him as pediatrician Mensur Dzekovic, and said the others injured were being treated for shrapnel wounds to their limbs.
"We were just standing there and all of the sudden we heard and felt the explosion," said wounded protester Zoran Rakic, according to Serbia`s state-run Tanjug news agency. "I was standing with my wife and felt the pain in my hand."
Rakic was quoted as saying the protest had been peaceful until the blast. Authorities were still investigating the incident.
Interior Minister Bajram Rexhepi blamed the blast on "careless armed Serb protesters," suggesting a grenade had detonated accidentally, but said Pristina would not back down from its plan to keep the office running, despite opposition from minority Serbs. The office gives out birth certificates and other documents, but is ignored by Serbs who treat the territory as part of Serbia.
"We must insist that this office remains open," Rexhepi told the Cabinet in a televised meeting, adding that closing it "would send a bad signal" of Pristina`s efforts to establish control in the north.
Mitrovica — split by a river into a Serb area and an ethnic Albanian one — has often been a scene of clashes between the two sides with NATO-led peacekeepers and EU police caught in the middle.
Serb leaders in the north blamed EU police for escalating the situation Friday by securing Kosovo officials, but EU officials dismissed the claim saying they deployed to support the local police during the protest.
"We were called in to secure the area," said Karin Limdal, spokeswoman for the 2,000-strong EU police mission in Kosovo. "We had nothing to do with the Kosovo government actions up there."
In Belgrade, Serbian President Boris Tadic and the Serbian government said the explosion was meant to provoke Serbia and undermine peace in Kosovo, but said Serbia would not react. Tadic called, however, for an urgent session of the National Security Council, the country`s top security body.
The council later called the explosion "a terrorist act by Albanian separatists." It said the responsibility for the "tragic events" also lies on the international representative in Kosovo, Peter Feith, for pressing with the opening of Pristina-run offices in the Serb-dominated areas.
Serbia asked the UN Security Council for a meeting on the explosion and Nigeria`s UN Ambassador U Joy Ogwu, the current council president, said members would be briefed on the incident on Tuesday. She told reporters Friday that Serbia`s president would attend.
Kosovo`s ethnic Albanians waged a separatist war against Serbia in 1998-99. The fighting ended after NATO`s 78-day bombing campaign wrestled Kosovo out of Serbia`s control and brought it under United Nations administration.
Kosovo declared independence in February 2008, but Serbia and its ally Russia have refused to recognize that.
So far 69 countries, including the United States, have recognized Kosovo`s statehood.