November 18, 2015 / 9:20 AM / 2 years ago

Riots in Kosovo deepen crisis over Serbia accord

People tend to a woman who fainted after being affected by tear gas during a protest in the centre of Kosovo's capital Pristina, November 18, 2015. REUTERS/Hazir Reka

PRISTINA (Reuters) - Riots erupted in Kosovo on Wednesday in a deepening crisis over relations with former ruler Serbia, with protesters setting fire to garbage containers and government vehicles in the capital Pristina.

A hardcore of several hundred protesters fought running battles with police, who used tear gas and armored vehicles to try to disperse them.

Almost eight years after Kosovo won its independence from Serbia, the European Union is trying to smooth relations between the Balkan neighbors, but many among Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority are opposed to concessions made to Belgrade.

An opposition bloc headed by prominent protest leader-turned politician Albin Kurti has repeatedly disrupted the work of parliament with tear gas and pepper spray, demanding that the government scrap an EU-brokered accord offering minority ethnic Serbs greater local powers and the possibility of some financing from Belgrade.

The young country’s Constitutional Court is due to rule on the constitutionality of the accord, but on Wednesday the court was surrounded by police and bomb squad officers after a hand grenade was lobbed into its grounds.

Police detonated the grenade in a controlled explosion.

Hours later, when news broke that a parliamentary ally of Kurti had been ordered detained for 30 days for setting off tear gas in the chamber on Tuesday, protesters converged on the government building, lobbing rocks, bottles and petrol bombs.

Police also tried to arrest Kurti at his home but he was not there. He later turned up during the protests, which as dusk fell escalated into riots. Rioters stopped government cars in the streets of Pristina, smashing and setting them alight.

There was no immediate word from the government or the president.

The EU, which has police officers, judges and prosecutors in Kosovo under a mandate to promote the rule of law, called for calm.

“EU mission in Kosovo calls on the opposition to show respect for the institutions of the Kosovo people,” it said on Twitter.

Majority-Albanian Kosovo broke away from Serbia in 1999 when NATO carried out 11 weeks of air strikes to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians by Serbian forces trying to crush a guerrilla insurgency.

It declared independence in 2008 and has been recognized by more than 100 states, including the major Western powers. Serbia, backed by its ally Russia, rejects Kosovo’s independence.

Both Serbia and Kosovo aspire to join the EU eventually.

Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Gareth Jones

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