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UN Reopens Court In Kosovo's Flashpoint Town Of Mitrovica

Kosovar Serbs throw stones at KFOR soldiers in Mitrovica on March 17.
MITROVICA, Kosovo (Reuters) -- International officials have regained control of a UN court in the flashpoint town of Mitrovica that ethnic Serbs took eight months ago in protest at Kosovo's declaration of independence.

The Serbian minority of some 120,000 people among 2 million ethnic Albanians rejects Kosovo's secession from Serbia.

Kosovo's Serbs, financially backed by Serbia, pledged never to accept a European Union judicial and police mission that is set to deploy. They insist on the UN administration of the region as agreed in 1999.

Two international judges and two prosecutors entered the courthouse after it had been secured by dozens of international police officers. No incidents were reported.

"In this initial phase of the reopening, the prosecutors and international judges will only handle urgent criminal cases, and apply UNMIK law and procedure. Civil cases will not be heard," the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) said in a statement.

"In the next phase, local judicial workers and court staff would be introduced. This would increase capacity to deal with more cases," it said.

The court will officially start working on October 6.

Kosovar Serbs began protests in front of the court building on Febraury 17 when the ethnic-Albanian majority declared independence.

They prevented Albanian court workers from crossing the bridge over the River Ibar that divides Mitrovica into a Serbian north and an Albanian south.

One Ukrainian police officer was killed and dozens of his colleagues were injured in clashes on March 17 between UN police trying to enter the building and Serbian protesters.

Mitrovica city prosecutor Milan Bigovic said Albanian court workers would not be allowed to work there.

"The court should reflect the ethnic composition of the town," Bigovic said.

Some 20,000 Serbs live in north Mitrovica. They refuse to deal with Kosovar institutions and see Belgrade as their capital.

Belgrade lost control of Kosovo in 1999 when NATO intervened to halt the ethnic cleansing of civilians in Serbia's former province and the United Nations took over.

The deployment of the European Union's rule-of-law mission (EULEX), designed to keep up an international presence in Kosovo instead of UNMIK, has faced long delays. Only several hundred out of a 2,200 mission personnel have arrived.

Serbs say they will never accept the mission unless approved by the UN Security Council.

So far 47 countries have recognized Kosovo as an independent state. Belgrade has launched a motion before the UN General Assembly to ask the International Court of Justice's opinion on the legality of Kosovo's secession.