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Official: NATO peacekeepers can open fire in self-defense in Kosovo after Serb mob attack
PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) ' American and French peacekeepers were told Thursday to fire their weapons in defense if attacked at border posts on Kosovo's northern boundary with Serbia, a day after the crossings were set ablaze by Serbs armed with firebombs, a NATO spokesman said.
There have been days of mounting tension between ethnic Albanians and minority Serbs after Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci ordered special police units to take over two disputed border posts that were previously manned by Serb members of the police under EU supervision. One Kosovo policeman died in the operation.
"We are in command of those places," NATO spokesman Capt. Hans Wichter said. "If we are threatened, we have the right to use weapons." He said the area was "declared a military zone," meaning the alliance makes all decisions related to security.
NATO troops were attacked late Wednesday by machine guns and anti-tank rockets as they moved to secure the border posts, the top NATO commander in Kosovo, Maj. Gen. Erhard Buehler, said. No injures were reported. They took control of the border posts Thursday.
Thaci's goal in trying to take over the crossings was to enforce Kosovo's ban on goods from Serbia in the Serb-run area, which has rejected Kosovo's 2008 independence. Serbs object to Kosovo customs posts being set up on the crossings with Serbia because it weakens Serbia's claim over the territory and its influence in the Serb-dominated region.
Buehler is leading efforts to reach an agreement that would ease tensions between the two sides. But late Thursday the military alliance said no breakthrough was in sight and that talks with officials from Serbia and Kosovo would continue Friday.
Serbia's Kosovo negotiator, Borislav Stefanovic, accused the NATO force in Kosovo ' known as KFOR ' of siding with Kosovo's ethnic Albanians and helping them establish Pristina's rule as an independent country in the territory that Serbia considers its own.
"We couldn't reach an agreement because the KFOR command does not understand that they are being used by Pristina," Stefanovic said.
The U.N. Security Council is holding closed consultations on Kosovo. Serbia's Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic is in New York and diplomats said he was pressing for an open meeting, backed by close ally Russia.
At a special session of Kosovo's parliament, Thaci defended his decision, which has drawn strong criticism from the EU.
"Currently we have difficulties and confrontation, but we will not back away at any price," Thaci told Kosovo's lawmakers moments before they voted in favor of a resolution backing the police action. "This is our land, our country."
Kosovo police declared the operation in the north over Wednesday, but a mob of Serbs attacked the area.
Security camera footage from the Jarinje border crossing ' obtained by The Associated Press ' showed a mob of about 200 men, some of them wearing masks and waving Serbian flags attacking the crossing late Wednesday and setting it on fire before smashing the security cameras.
As the masked Serbs attacked, European Union police on the scene fled in their cars, according to video shown on Serbia's state-run RTS television.
In an apparent spillover of ethnic tensions on Thursday, a Serb was beaten and seriously injured in the town of Strpce in southern Kosovo, Serbian government spokesman Milivoje Mihajlovic said.
Police in Kosovo confirmed the attack, but could not immediately say whether it was ethnically motivated.
Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.