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 rioting was a challenge to the authority of NATO, theUnited Nations and European Union, underscoring fears thatKosovo could be heading for partition one month after breakingaway from Serbia.
Reuters witnesses in the town reported hearing gunfire ashundreds of Serbs clashed with NATO peacekeepers and U.N.police. A French NATO spokesman said automatic weapons fire hadbeen aimed at peacekeepers but gave no further details.
United Nations police were ordered to pull out afterhundreds of Serbs opposed to Kosovo's independence fought backagainst a dawn raid to evict them from a court building theyoccupied last week.
Police and troops fired tear gas at protesters throwingstones and firecrackers. Cars were set ablaze and severalpolice and NATO troops were hurt in an explosion.
"Eight French KFOR soldiers are injured with grenades,stones and molotov cocktails," said French spokesman Etienne duFayet de la Tour. Their wounds were not life-threatening, hesaid.
KFOR is the U.N.-mandated NATO peacekeeping force inKosovo, where about 120,000 Serbs remain and form a bitterminority among two million ethnic Albanians.
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 ona final status solution for Kosovo after years in limbo as aninternational protectorate following the Balkan wars of the1990s.
"An order has been given for UNMIK police to withdraw fromthe north (of Kosovo) because of ongoing violent riots," aspokesman said in Kosovo's capital, Pristina.
"More than 100 people have been treated for the effects oftear gas," Mitrovica hospital director Milan Ivanovic said.
The violence started after several hundred U.N. specialpolice backed by NATO peacekeepers stormed a U.N. court andarrested dozens of Serbs who had seized the building on Friday.
Rioters attacked three U.N. vehicles, breaking doors andfreeing around 10 detainees from the raid, witnesses said.
Some U.N. vans with detainees were still in the courtyardof the compound, in a standoff with dozens of Serb protestersoutside blocking their exit.
The takeover of the court on Friday was the latest effortby Serbs to assert control over policing and justice in northKosovo following the ethnic Albanian majority's declaration ofindependence on Feb 17.
More than 50 court protesters were arrested and taken toprison in Pristina, a KFOR spokesman said.
"KFOR is securing the areas in the north where KosovoAlbanians live," the spokesman said, referring to a handful ofAlbanian communities in the Serb-dominated north.
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.
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 Fatos Bytyci, Shaban Buza; writingby Matt Robinson and Douglas Hamilton; editing by TimothyHeritage)