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Kosovo police use tear gas to prevent clashes between ethnic Albanians and Serbs

MITROVICA, Kosovo (AP) — Riot police in Kosovo used tear gas and pepper spray Sunday to separate hundreds of ethnic Albanian protesters from rock-throwing Serbs voting in local Serbian elections in the tense, divided town of Mitrovica.

NATO peacekeepers and European Union police units were also deployed to prevent clashes on the bridge that splits the town into a Serbian north and an Albanian south.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Serbia rejected the move and with the backing of Russia has fought to keep nations around the world from recognizing Kosovo. Some 70 nations, including the United States, support Kosovo's independence.

The Kosovo split came a decade after its 1998-1999 war with Serbia, which ended with NATO bombing Serb forces for weeks in 1999 to stop an ethnic cleansing campaign against Kosovo's mostly ethnic Albanian population.

On Sunday, about 2,000 ethnic Albanians, led by veterans of the war, protested a vote in the Serb part of Mitrovica that they considered a breach of Kosovo's sovereignty.

Singing nationalist songs and chanting the name of the now-disbanded guerrilla army that fought Serb forces in Kosovo, they marched toward the bridge, where police held back hundreds of Serb counter-demonstrators who were throwing rocks and setting off fireworks.

Police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse Serb protesters trying to charge across the bridge. Minutes later, automatic gunfire came from the north, but police did not report any injuries.

Protesters on both sides dispersed an hour later, although NATO peacekeepers and EU police officers stayed to guard the bridge spanning the Ibar river — a natural frontier between the two estranged communities that has been a frequent scene of clashes.

Mitrovica was halved 11 years ago after French peacekeepers moved to protect local Serbs from Albanians seeking vengeance for their treatment by Serbs during the war. Since then, countless efforts have been made to bring the two sides together, but have largely failed.

International overseers as well as Kosovo's government have not been able to establish their authority in the north, where Serb leaders largely backed by Belgrade are in control.

The last riots took place in 2008 after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. A Ukrainian peacekeeper was killed by rioting Serbs and dozens of NATO peacekeepers were injured.