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NATO, Police Separate Violent Protesters In Kosovo

MITROVICA, Kosovo (Reuters) -- NATO peacekeepers and police separated thousands of ethnic Albanians and Serbs in the divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica today during the worst ethnic unrest since the country's independence two years ago.

Kosovo police fired tear gas to disperse violent crowds while NATO and the European Union police officers in full riot gear were deployed on the bridge above a river that divides Mitrovica into two ethnically separate halves.

Ethnic Albanians were protesting against Serb local elections, backed by Belgrade, in the northern part of the country where Kosovo's central government has no authority.

Kosovo, a former Serbian region with a mainly ethnic Albanian population of 2 million, declared independence in 2008 but is not recognized by Belgrade.

A Reuters witness said shots were fired near the bridge over the Ibar River that separates the southern, ethnic Albanian part of the town from the Serb-dominated northern district.

"We have used a small amount of tear gas and intervened to stop groups of Serbs and Albanians and prevent a further escalation of violence," said Kosovo police spokesman Besim Hoti.

Two people on the Serb side were injured by rocks the two groups of protesters hurled at each other, health authorities in the Serb part of Mitrovica said.

The NATO mission, known as KFOR, which has around 10,000 peacekeepers in the ground, said it would not tolerate violence.

"We will pursue our mandate and in case of any trouble that may jeopardize the safety and security environment and the freedom of movement, and we will take all necessary measures to reinstall calm," said Anthony Pfau, a NATO spokesman.

The situation remains uneasy in north Kosovo since the Albanian majority proclaimed independence from Serbia in February 2008, nine years after NATO bombed Serb forces to halt the killing of civilians in a two-year counterinsurgency war.

The 120,000 Serbs in Kosovo refuse to cooperate with Albanian-run institutions and the EULEX force.