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EU Mission Deploys in Kosovo Amid Protests

The European Union has begun deploying its largest justice and police mission ever in Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia earlier this year. The EU mission began amid protests in the country, which is still recovering from the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The first members of the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, or EULEX, unpacked their blue berets and fresh uniforms, and began deploying across the mainly ethnic-Albanian territory of Kosovo.

About 3,000 people, including 1,900 international and 1,100 local staff members, will eventually participate in EULEX, described as the largest civilian mission in the EU history.

The head of EULEX, retired French General Yves de Kermabon, told reporters his mission of judges, prosecutors, police, custom officials and correctional officers will help build government institutions in Kosovo, which is still recovering from Balkan wars.

"I can affirm today that we are ready to start fulfilling the mission," he said. "It means that we have the minimum requirement to do this and to work with our [Kosovo] counterparts in the three components: Justice, police and customs."

Yet, EULEX strongly relies on 16,000 peacekeepers of the Western military alliance, NATO, for protection, as it finds itself unwanted by either side of Kosovo's ethnic divide - ethnic Albanians and Serbs.

In recent weeks, thousands of people from across Kosovo have demonstrated against the EU mission. Ethnic-Albanian protesters view it as an attempt to impose European control over their young nation of about two million people. Kosovo's Serb minority is against EULEX because most EU member states supported Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia, earlier this year.

Despite these disagreements, Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci supports EULEX. In comments translated by France 24 television, he said the EU mission could help restore law and order for all ethnic groups in Kosovo.

"This mission will strengthen the republic of Kosovo's institution's and can only extend its authority," he said. "Any action taken by EULEX will be taken in agreement with our constitution."

EULEX is to take over from the United Nations, which has ruled Kosovo since 1999, following a war between Serbian forces and independence seeking ethnic Albanians. U.N. officials said they will remain in Kosovo to oversee a smooth transition.

EULEX is under international pressure to help improve Kosovo's struggling legal system. Western observers say courts are swamped with cases and that corruption is rampant.