By Branislav Krstic
MITROVICA, Kosovo (Reuters) - Hundreds of Serbs in northKosovo clashed with U.N. police and NATO peacekeepers on Mondayin the worst violence in the territory since the Albanianmajority declared independence last month.
Riots erupted in the town of Mitrovica after severalhundred U.N. special police backed by French NATO peacekeepersstormed a U.N. court in the town and arrested dozens of Serbswho had seized the building on Friday.
The rioters attacked three U.N. vehicles, breaking doorsand freeing around 10 detainees from the raid, witnesses said.
An explosion wounded three U.N. police officers and twoNATO soldiers, police said. The injured were being evacuated,but it was not known what caused the blast.
Police and NATO troops fired tear gas to disperse thecrowds lobbing stones and firecrackers. Smoke was seenbillowing from at least two transport vehicles of the16,000-strong NATO peace force in Kosovo, KFOR.
"More than 100 people have been treated for the effects oftear gas," Mitrovica hospital director Milan Ivanovic said.
Serb protesters had seized the court on Friday in thelatest of a string of measures to assert control over policingand justice in Serb areas of Kosovo following the ethnicAlbanian majority's declaration of independence on Feb 17.
Around 120,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo, a bitter minorityamong two million ethnic Albanians.
The Kosovo Serbs, almost half of whom live in the north,reject Kosovo's Western-backed declaration of independence.Supported by Russia, Belgrade has vowed to never accept thesecession and to extend its authority over Serb areas,particularly the north.
More than 500 mainly Ukrainian U.N. police were involved inthe dawn raid, backed by hundreds of French troops in armouredvehicles.
More than 50 court protesters were arrested and taken toprison in the Kosovo capital, Pristina, a KFOR spokesman said."KFOR is securing the areas in the north where Kosovo Albanianslive," the spokesman said, referring to a handful of Albaniancommunities in the Serb-dominated north.
Serbs had been protesting outside the court for threeweeks, many of them former court employees demanding theyreturn to work nine years after they were left jobless whenNATO expelled Serb forces from Kosovo.
Serbia lost control of its southern province in 1999, whenNATO intervened to halt the ethnic cleansing of civilians in acounter-insurgency war, and the United Nations took over.
Kosovo's secession was backed by the United States and theEuropean Union, which is deploying a supervisory mission totake over some of the U.N.'s tasks. Some analysts fear Serbiais now trying to partition the territory.
(Additional reporting by Shaban Buza; writing by MattRobinson)