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Tear gas, rubber bullets as ethnic Albanians clash with Kosovo police (PHOTOS)

Published time: June 22, 2014 18:34
Edited time: June 23, 2014 02:08
Kosovo Albanian demonstrators throw rocks towards the police, while standing near a burning vehicle set on fire during a protest in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica June 22, 2014. (Reuters / Hazir Reka)

Kosovo Albanian demonstrators throw rocks towards the police, while standing near a burning vehicle set on fire during a protest in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica June 22, 2014. (Reuters / Hazir Reka)

Several people, including police officers, have been injured as ethnic Albanians clashed with security forces in the city of Mitrovica. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to stop protesters who were hurling stones and burning cars.

Twenty one people have reportedly been injured, including 13 police officers and two journalists.

Hundreds of Albanians protested over Serb plans to erect a “Peace Park” on the Mitrovica Bridge over the Ibar River that splits the town into Serbian and Albanian neighborhoods.

Kosovo Albanians run away from tear gas grenades fired by anti-riot police during clashes on June 22, 2014 in the divided town of Mitrovica. (AFP Photo / Armend Nimani)

The bridge has been blocked by Serbs since 2011 until last Wednesday, when Serbs from northern Mitrovica removed barricades under an EU-brokered deal. However, shortly after large flower pots were still placed in the same spot to keep the bridge closed for traffic, but open for pedestrians.

The protest against the new blockade of the bridge was reportedly organized via social networks and was scheduled to start at 15:00 local time.

Clashes erupted when ethnic Albanian rioters started setting police cars on fire and hurling stones at security forces.

As violence escalated, the NATO-led KFOR and the EU mission EULEX soldiers were deployed to back-up police and prevent the unrest from spreading.

Journalists in Pristina reported two explosions, presumably caused by burning cars. According to local Tanjug news agency, one of the EULEX’s vehicles has also been burnt down.

Kosovo’s local police head Zeljko Bojic said that the situation was calm hours after the clashes that erupted at around 15:30 local time. Increased police presence will remain at the site during the night and until the next morning.

On Saturday, the mayor of southern Mitrovica, Agim Bahtiri, said that “patience came to an end” and that the new barricade on the bridge over the Ibar River disguised as a park must immediately be removed.

Kosovo Albanian demonstrators approach towards the police during a protest in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica June 22, 2014. (Reuters / Hazir Reka)

His statement came in response to the plans voiced by the mayor of the Serb part of Mitrovica, Goran Rakic, to construct the so-called "Peace Park" on the bridge.

Ethnic Serbs in the north of Kosovo are reluctant to integrate with Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority.

Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, declared in 2008. Last year Kosovo’s Parliament approved an EU-brokered agreement aimed at normalizing ties with neighboring Serbia.

The agreement was widely considered as a step toward Serbia’s entry into the EU as the conflict with Kosovo was its main obstacle to joining the bloc. Both Belgrade and Pristina agreed not to block each other's efforts to seek EU membership.

Kosovo police stop a demonstrator during a protest in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica June 22, 2014. (Reuters / Hazir Reka)

A U.S. soldier, part of a NATO peace force, places barbed wire on his Humvee during a protest in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica June 22, 2014. (Reuters / Hazir Reka)

A Kosovo Albanian man, holding an Albanian flag, walks near tear gas fired by riot-police during clashes on June 22, 2014 in the divided town of Mitrovica. (AFP Photo / Armend Nimani)