09 July 2007

2 die of injuries day after violent protest in Kosovo

Associated Press, Sunday, February 11, 2007 2:08 PM


PRISTINA, Serbia-Two protesters injured in a violent weekend clash with police in Kosovo died of their wounds, as ethnic Albanian leaders called for calm Sunday in the troubled province.


A protest against the U.N. plan for Kosovo turned violent Saturday, and riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at thousands of ethnic Albanians who had broken through a security cordon and were marching toward a government building in Pristina, the provincial capital.


The crowds were protesting against the U.N. plan on Kosovo's future status, which they say does not go far enough. Kosovo's ethnic Albanians demand full independence from Serbia, while the U.N. plan calls for internationally supervised self-rule.


Two other people remained in serious condition after being injured in the clashes. About 70 protesters sought medical assistance, mainly for the effects of tear gas.


A government statement identified the two dead as Man Balaj and Arben Xhelali. NATO-led peacekeepers said an investigation was under way to determine the circumstances of their death.


"It is totally regrettable that two lives were lost as a result of wanton breach of security at the government buildings," U.N. police commissioner Stephen Curtis said. "The demonstrators at the government buildings compelled the police to take defensive measures to restore order. Any death is disheartening and saddens us greatly."


Curtis said he invited Kosovo's police inspectorate "to maintain an independent overview of the investigation into the deaths to ensure transparency."


Kosovo's Prime Minister Agim Ceku said "the death of two citizens is enough of an indication that could lead to the conclusion that there has been excessive use of force."


In a joint statement, ethnic Albanian leaders said the protest created tensions that "go against the stability and Kosovo's general interests." The leaders also expressed their condolences to the families of those killed.


"Events such as yesterday's could bear negative consequences for the process of Kosovo's state-building," they said.


Diplomats from United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, France and Russia in Kosovo condemned the violence.


"There is no place in Kosovo now or in the future for violence as a means to secure political objectives," the statement said. "Those who resort to violence and provocation only damage their own cause in the eyes of world opinion, and we can see first hand the tragic results that ensue here in Kosovo."


Dozens lit candles in Pristina's downtown, the scene of Saturday clashes, to pay tribute to the victims in an event organized by protest group Self-determination.


Kosovo has been run by the U.N. since mid-1999, when NATO launched an air war to halt the Serb crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists. The conflict in Kosovo left some 10,000 people dead, most of them ethnic Albanians.


Tensions are running high in Kosovo with ethnic Albanians impatient to conclude the process they hope will result in Kosovo becoming an independent state and a Serb minority warning of secession in the north of the province.


Kosovo is one of the poorest regions in Europe, with a high unemployment rate and a young population.


There were fears that the unveiling of the U.N. plan could spark violence in the ethnically tense province.


An estimated 3,000 people, many carrying banners reading "No negotiation, Self-determination", took part in the rally on Saturday.


Chief U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari unveiled his proposal for Kosovo's future a week ago. The plan does not explicitly call for Kosovo's independence from Serbia, but spells out conditions for self-rule, including a flag, anthem, army, constitution and the right to apply for membership in international organizations.


Kosovo's Serb minority would have a high degree of control over its own affairs.


The plan, which needs approval by the U.N. Security Council to come into force, was endorsed by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders but rejected by Serbian officials in Belgrade who refuse to give up the province, considered Serbia's historic heartland.


The leader of the protest, Albin Kurti, said Saturday the plan did not reflect the will of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority for independence and privileged the Serb minority. He said protesters were opposed to ethnic Albanian leaders who made "many concessions to Serbia without bringing independence."


The protesters also said the plan could lead to the creation of a separate Serb entity within the province. Police arrested Kurti several hours after the protest ended.


Talks on the plan are set to continue between ethnic Albanian and Serbian officials on Feb. 21.


Ceku visited the families of the dead and insisted that the political process his government followed was the only way to achieve Kosovo's independence.


"Unfortunately, it appears we haven't convinced everyone," he said.