Explosion Shakes Serbian Mall Ahead of Expected Independence

An explosion shook a shopping mall in Serbia on Friday and another mall was evacuated as tensions soared before an expected declaration of independence by the Serbian province of Kosovo.

The explosions took place a day after right-wing protesters, chanting the names of Bosnian Serb war crimes fugitives whom they consider heroes, disrupted an exhibition by Kosovo Albanian artists.

Nationalists are angry that Kosovo — Serbia's cherished medieval heartland now dominated by independence-seeking ethnic Albanians — will secede within days.

Serbian Minister for Kosovo Slobodan Samardzic said Friday that the declaration likely will be made Feb. 17. He did not give the source of his information. Kosovo Albanian leaders have said statehood will come in "a matter of days."

The blast early Friday at a shopping center in New Belgrade was caused by an "explosive device," said Sanja Segrt, a spokeswoman for the Slovenian company that owns the mall. No one was injured and the explosion caused only minor damage, she said.

Serbian police said the blast destroyed 10 windows near the main entrance and an investigation is ongoing.

In Slovenia, the Foreign Ministry said it expected the Serbian police to identify and punish the culprits. But it added that "Slovenian and Serbian friendship is traditional. We ... will make sure that it stays that way in the future, as well."

Hours later, Serbian media reported that another mall — this one in the central town of Cacak, and owned by the same Slovenian company, Merkator — was evacuated after a telephone bomb threat. It turned out to be a false alarm.

Many Serbs see Slovenia, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union, as supportive of Kosovo's quest for independence.

Some Serbs have called for a boycott of Slovenian goods — a campaign reminiscent of the days leading up to the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Late Thursday, riot police deployed in central Belgrade to prevent about 300 members of the right-wing group Obraz, or Honor, from bursting into an art gallery and disrupting the opening of an exhibition of art from Kosovo.

Ljubica Beljanski-Ristic, who runs the gallery, which is displaying work by 11 Kosovo Albanian artists, said one of the protesters tore down a poster before the event was closed "for security reasons."

The poster featured the image of a now-dead founder of a Kosovo Albanian rebel group appearing with Elvis Presley, like a pop icon. Beljanski-Ristic said the poster was badly damaged and the exhibition will remain closed.

"This was an attempt to open a dialogue," Beljanski-Ristic said of the show.

Dren Maliqi, the artist who designed the poster, agreed in Pristina that the aim of the exhibition was to encourage communication between the two communities.

"Nobody should stop us from communicating," Maliqi said.

In Belgrade, the Serbian Ministry of Culture condemned the incident, while several liberal groups demanded that Obraz be banned by the authorities.

The Obraz members were chanting names of Bosnian Serb war crimes fugitives Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, whom they consider heroes despite the genocide indictments against them at a U.N. war crimes tribunal.