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Kosovo's Government Headquarters Set on Fire After Riot Erupts at Huge Protest

Protesters upset over recent government agreements with Serbia and Montenegro threw bricks and Molotov cocktails as clashes broke out in the capital Pristina.

by Frederick Tiffin
Jan 9 2016, 9:00pm

Photo by Frederick Tiffin/VICE News

Protesters in Kosovo clashed with riot police and set fire to the country's government headquarters in the capital Pristina on Saturday, as thousands of demonstrators turned out to express opposition to recent government agreements with neighbors Serbia and Montenegro.

The main political opposition parties of Kosovo united to organize what was supposed to be a peaceful march from the National Library to the Kosovan parliament. While the vast majority of protesters conducted themselves peacefully, things turned violent when a hardcore group of protesters, mostly young men, started to throw bricks at the government headquarters. The situation escalated when the protesters threw Molotov cocktails at the building, causing part of it to become engulfed in flames. Riot police quickly intervened, using tear gas and armored vehicles to clear the crowd.

"We came to tell the government we are at war, we will always be at war until this government is gone," a masked man carrying the flag of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the guerrilla group that fought the Serbs for independence, told VICE News.

Police claimed the turnout at Saturday's rally was only about 8,000, but Frasher Krasniqi, a spokesman for of the leading opposition party, estimated that 100,000 were in attendance.

The protesters gathered to condemn the Association of Serb Communes, a pact signed in August to give more autonomy to ethnic Serb areas of Kosovo. The agreement was part of the "normalization" of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, encouraged by the European Union. Both Serbia and Kosovo are seeking EU membership.

The agreement, however, was not welcomed by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, and led to violent mass protests and the beginning of the worst political crisis the nation has seen since declaring sovereignty from Serbia in 2008.

Opposition leaders say the agreement threatens Kosovo's sovereignty by granting powers to an ethnic minority group backed by Serbia. Protesters and opposition politicians also oppose a separate agreement, signed last August, that cedes some of the country's territory to Montenegro, which borders Kosovo to the west.

'We came to tell the government we are at war, we will always be at war until this government is gone.'

"I am here because of the government's unconstitutional decision with the Serbs," said a 25-year-old who gave his name only as Labinot when asked by VICE News why he attended the protest. "We are not against the ethnic Serbs in our country, we are against Serbia setting up a state within our state."

Most of the rioters on Saturday disbanded after a few hours, but some continued to throw projectiles at police throughout the capital into the afternoon. An armored police vehicle was also set on fire at one point.

Some attendees bemoaned the violence.

"I was here to protest peacefully, we don't want to see this in our country, I am completely against this use of violence," a man who gave his name as Astrit said while rioters continued to throw bricks at police.

Many protesters cited high unemployment rates and lack of opportunities as reasons for taking to the streets. Kosovo is one of the poorest countries in Europe, with an overall unemployment rate of 35 percent. The unemployment rate for people ages 15-24 is 60 percent

Related: Kosovo Rejects Special Court to Prosecute Organ Harvesting and Other Alleged War Crimes

"The government is guilty [for the riots], it is their corruption that causes this. The police are not our target, it's the government," said one 15-year-old protester, who gave his name as Edmond. "We have no jobs, no prospects in this country."

Police have arrested 13 members of opposition parties for repeatedly discharging tear gas canisters in parliament in protest of the agreement with Serbia. The unrest has continued despite attempts by President Atifete Jahjaga to quell the upheaval.

"People are fed up, we have reached (the) saturation point," said Albin Kurti, one of the opposition members of parliament who is under house arrest. "45 percent of people live on less than $1 per day." Kurti said he fears "the Balkans will boil" if things remain unchanged. He said the deal with Serbia "is sowing the seeds of war for the next generation."

Kurti maintained that the issue is not with the ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo, but with "Serbia wanting a quarter of (our) country." He claimed the association of municipalities will "undermine our state from within."

Related: Video Shows Tear Gas Breaking Up Another Parliament Session in Kosovo

While the premise of Saturday's march was to stop the government's agreements with Serbia and Montenegro, many of protesters who spoke to VICE News went further, stating that they would continue their campaign of civil unrest until current government leaders stepped down.

Kosovo, Europe's newest nation, is less than a decade old. It is recognized by more than 100 countries, but still not seen as a sovereign entity by Serbia, as well as global powers China, India, and Russia.

All photos by Frederick Tiffin. Follow him on Twitter: @FrederickTiffin