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Published: Monday June 23, 2014 MYT 1:12:10 AM
Updated: Monday June 23, 2014 MYT 1:12:20 AM

Kosovo Albanians torch cars, police fire rubber bullets in divided town

MITROVICA Kosovo (Reuters) - Police in Kosovo fired tear gas and rubber bullets on Sunday at ethnic Albanian rioters burning police cars and lobbing rocks in the ethnically-divided town of Mitrovica, in protest over the blockage of the main bridge by ethnic Serbs.

A Reuters reporter saw Polish special police units, part of a European Union mission, open fire with rubber bullets, during one of the worst bouts of civil unrest since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

A police spokesman said six police officers and 10 civilians had been wounded. "The situation is changing rapidly," he said.

The violence broke out when several hundred Albanians, protesting over the Serbs' closure of the bridge for the past three years, began lobbing rocks and bottles at Kosovo police officers.

They set fire to cars belonging to Kosovo police and the EU law and order mission. Kosovo police responded with tear gas.

U.S. soldiers, part of a NATO peace force of some 5,000, guarded the bridge in four rows of Humvees.

Mitrovica has been a frequent flashpoint between Serbs and Albanians since Kosovo's 1998-99 war, when NATO intervened with 11 weeks of air strikes to halt the massacre and expulsion of Albanians by Serbian forces waging a counter-insurgency war.

Serbia does not recognise Kosovo as independent, but agreed to give up de facto control over a small Serb pocket of northern Kosovo last year under a deal brokered by the EU. In exchange, Belgrade won the green light to open talks on joining the EU.

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

They blocked the bridge in 2011 following an abortive bid by the Kosovo government to rein in the north. The Serbs dismantled the roadblock on Wednesday, only to replace it with a "Park of Peace" consisting of concrete plant pots and earth.

(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Sophie Hares)

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