Hundreds of armed Serb police violently broke up a large protest by ethnic Albanians Wednesday, firing tear gas and clubbing protesters to disperse the demonstration against Serbian repression.
The violence exploded when the crowd of about 20,000 protesters ignored an ultimatum to disperse and sat down instead. Riot police in full gear waded into the demonstrators, beating dozens with batons and sending the rest running from choking tear gas fumes.Within minutes Velanija, the Pristina suburb where the protesters had planned to start a march, was empty of all but police with shields and helmets. Hundreds of other officers were deployed elsewhere throughout the city, and police helicopters clattered above.
The demonstrators - most of them young students - are demanding the right to Albanian-language education at Pristina University, where instruction is now in Serbo-Croatian and the curriculum is set by Serbians.
For the past six years, the Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the 2 million people in Serbia's Kosovo province, have studied underground in private homes, following courses not recognized by Serbian authorities.
Wednesday's demonstration was the first large-scale protest in Kosovo since Serbia stripped the province of its autonomy in 1989. At least 25 people were killed in subsequent rioting though there were no reports Wednesday of any violence.
Leaders of ethnic Albanian students have vowed to press ahead with their peaceful protests despite appeals from their own political leaders and foreign diplomats not to do so. Wednesday's march was to take them from their own makeshift campus outside Pristina to the center of Kosovo's capital.
The protest was meant to cap recent silent "walkabouts." The latest, on Tuesday, drew some 7,000 people onto Pristina's streets.