MITROVICA, Kosovo – NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo confronted angry Serb crowds manning their roadblocks as tensions escalated Thursday in the volatile north of the country.
For nearly three months, Kosovo Serbs have been blocking roads to stop the country's ethnic Albanian leadership from extending its control over the part of the country populated mostly by ethnic Serbs.
The Serbs reject Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia and consider the region a part of the neighboring state.
After Kosovo Serb leaders refused NATO's demand to allow freedom of movement, the peacekeepers in riot gear moved at dawn Thursday against hundreds of Serbs at roadblocks consisting of parked trucks, rocks, mud and logs.
During the pushing and shouting between the two groups, the troops occasionally used pepper spray against the demonstrators who set down on the road some 10 kilometers (6 miles) northwest of the divided town of Mitrovica.
The peacekeepers used loudspeakers to call on the crowds to disperse or force would be used, while Serb leaders urged the demonstrators to remain peaceful. NATO's unmanned drones could be seen flying overhead.
The international troops say they want to establish freedom of movement in the region and reopen supply routes for their troops.
At their meeting Wednesday, Kosovo Serb leaders remained defiant, saying they will not allow free travel in the region. They said they could only offer "controlled" lifting of the blockade for peacekeepers' "humanitarian" supplies.
They appealed to Serbia to come to the rescue of Kosovo Serbs. NATO chased Serb troops out of Kosovo in 1999 after their brutal crackdown against separatist ethnic Albanians.
In July, ethnic Albanian authorities deployed their security forces to two border checkpoints in northern Kosovo to enforce a trade ban with Serbia. Serbs reacted by blocking roads and triggering clashes with Kosovo police that left one police officer dead.
The Serbs said they would lift the blockade only if the ethnic Albanian customs officers are removed from the two border posts with Serbia and KFOR guarantees they and members of the European Union rule of law mission in Kosovo -- known as EULEX -- would not be transported to the checkpoints in the peacekeepers convoys.