By Branislav Krstic
MITROVICA, Kosovo (Reuters) - NATO troops came under fireduring Serb riots in the northern Kosovo flashpoint ofMitrovica on Monday, in the worst violence in the territorysince the Albanian majority declared independence last month.
The riots posed a direct challenge to NATO, the UnitedNations and Kosovo's fledgling European Union justice mission,underscoring fears in the West that Kosovo could be heading forethnic partition one month after breaking away from Serbia.
A U.N. spokesman said the riot "crosses one of the redlines that had clearly been articulated by the U.N. to theleaders of Kosovo Serbs in the north and to officials inBelgrade." The United Nations said at least 25 police officerswere hurt.
But Serbia blamed the United Nations and NATO forheavy-handed action and increased the level of security on itsborders, warning that the volatile situation risked provoking afresh Albanian "pogrom" against Kosovo's 120,000 minoritySerbs.
The Orthodox church said Serbs were "again being killed".
Serbia's main ally Russia blamed the "illegitimate"secession of Kosovo for the rioting and urged the internationalpolice contingent to show restraint.
"A turn of events which leads to violence and clashescannot be allowed," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in astatement. "The international presence should show restraintand act strictly in accordance with its (United Nations)mandate."
The Serb director of Mitrovica hospital, politicalhardliner Marko Jaksic, said three people of Serb nationalityhad been severely injured in the rioting.
"One person has been shot in the head most probably by asniper. The bullet went right through," he said. "The person isin very bad condition (in) a hospital in Kragujevac in centralSerbia." Two others were in serious condition, Jaksic said.
The loyalist Serbian National Council of northern Kosovocalled on Belgrade to "help Serb people and say that Kosovo isSerbia", its leader Nebojsa Jovic was quoted as saying.
In an apparent hint at the forced partition the West fears,he said "there is a scenario" if people get killed, which couldreach "a point from which there's no way back".
The violence began at dawn when several hundred U.N.special police backed by NATO peacekeepers stormed a U.N. courtthat had been seized by Serbs on Friday, and arrested dozens.
Hundreds of Serbs fought back with stones, grenades andfirecrackers, forcing the U.N. police to pull back and leaveKFOR to face the rioters. Rioters attacked three U.N. vehicles,breaking doors and freeing around 10 of those detained in theraid, witnesses said.
Police and troops responded with tear gas. Some U.N. vanswith detainees were still in the courtyard of the compound,with dozens of Serb protesters outside blocking their exit.
NATO said its troops had come under automatic weapons fire.
"We used automatic weapons to respond but fired onlywarning shots," French spokesman Etienne du Fayet de la Tourtold Reuters. "We shot in the air, not into the crowd."
"Eight French KFOR soldiers are injured with grenades,stones and Molotov cocktails," said du Fayet de la Tour.
U.N. police withdrew "after attacks with explosive devicessuspected to be hand grenades, and firearms" a statement said.
Fourteen Ukrainian police serving with the United Nationswere injured when "fighters attacked a police station",Ukrainian Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko told reporters inSimferopol. Poland said 13 of its Kosovo U.N. officers werehurt.
The raid to retake the court coincided with the March 17anniversary of Kosovo Albanian riots against Serbs in 2004, inwhich 19 people were killed and hundreds of homes and churchesburned in two days of chaos that caught NATO flat-footed.
It was this flare-up that pushed the West to start talks onKosovo's final status in 2006. But they got nowhere.
Serbia's President Boris Tadic warned NATO and the UnitedNations of the risk for Kosovo Serbs on the anniversary of whathe called an Albanian "pogrom".
Bishop Amfilohije, acting head of the Serb Orthodox church,said "the suffering of our people is continuing this morning inMitrovica ... strongmen are continuing to kill our people".
The Serbian Interior Ministry "raised the security level inthe territory of Serbia to a higher level", the state newsagency Tanjug quoted a ministry source as saying.
In Belgrade, police reinforced protection at embassies andgovernment buildings ahead of planned protests on the March2004 anniversary.
(Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci, Shaban Buza; writingby Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Richard Balmforth)