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Serbs in the northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica fired weapons and threw grenades at international peacekeepers on Monday, wounding dozens of police officers and NATO troops. The clash was the worst violence since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on Feb. 17.

The episode began at dawn when U.N. police officers raided a U.N. courthouse that had been seized by Serbs on Friday, and arrested 53 people. Capt. Veton Elshani, a spokesman for the Kosovo Police Service, said in a telephone interview from Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, that several hundred Serbs responded by shooting at the police and throwing rocks and grenades, and that the police then used stun guns and tear gas.

The clashes, on the anniversary of violence four years ago that left 19 people dead, were part of a campaign by Serbs to make Pristina’s administration of northern Kosovo untenable and to force the de facto partition of the territory.

The escalation of violence in the Serb-dominated northern part of Kosovo has become a test of international resolve to hold the newborn nation together. It also poses a quandary for the NATO alliance and its 16,000 troops in Kosovo, which have a mandate to ensure the security of the province, but which are wary of spilling blood and becoming mired in a conflict that invariably trips over politics.

Elshani said the rioters had freed 21 of the detained Serbs by blocking U.N. cars carrying them. At least four U.N. and NATO vehicles were burned, he said, and the police were eventually forced to pull out of northern Mitrovica, leaving NATO troops to face the rioters.

A senior NATO official in Brussels, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not have clearance to discuss the issue for attribution, said the military could not be used to prevent every attempt by Serbs to impose a partition on Kosovo, adding, “There is a slippery slope between what is a political issue and what is a security issue.”

Mitrovica is divided between ethnic Albanians, who live south of the Ibar River, and Serbs, who live to the north. The city has long been a flash point for violence in Kosovo, which was placed under U.N. administration in 1999 after NATO intervened to halt the repression of ethnic Albanians, who make up 95 percent of Kosovo’s population, by the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

The northern part of Kosovo already has parallel Serbian institutional structures governing health and education policy, and a majority of Serbs do not recognize the authority of the new government in Pristina.

Over the past few weeks, Serbian protesters have tried to undermine Pristina’s authority in the north by setting fire to U.N. border posts, disrupting rail lines, attacking European Union and U.N. judicial and administrative offices, and preventing ethnic Albanian judges and lawyers from entering their offices in northern Mitrovica.

NATO and the United Nations issued a joint statement in Pristina on Monday condemning the “lethal violence, including direct fire by a mob.”