Protesters rally on Kosovo independence day

Pristina (AFP) - Thousands of protesters marched through Kosovo's capital Wednesday on the eighth anniversary of independence from Serbia, calling for the government to step down and hold snap elections.

After a morning of official anniversary celebrations in the capital Pristina, including a military parade, flag-waving demonstrators gathered amid tight security.

The two-hour rally went off peacefully, despite fears it would turn violent like other recent protests.

"We want to remove (Prime Minister) Isa Mustafa and his fellow politicians. This is why we are gathered here today," said Visar Ymeri, head of the opposition Self-Determination party, in a speech to the protesters.

"We say 'no' to this government. We are the alternative for progress," he added, describing the current government members as "thieves" and "criminals".

The mostly ethnic Albanian and Muslim territory unilaterally declared its independence from Belgrade in February 2008, a move since recognised by more than 100 countries but not by Serbia or Russia.

Eight years later it faces a political deadlock, with the united opposition particularly angry over a government deal with Serbia, brokered by the European Union (EU), to create an association giving greater powers to Kosovo's Serb minority.

The opposition wants the deal annulled, fearing it will deepen Kosovo's ethnic divisions and increase the reach of former master Serbia, against whom Kosovo's pro-independence ethnic Albanian rebels fought a war in the late 1990s.

Protesters also accuse the authorities of widespread corruption, lagging development and a disregard for Muslim-majority Kosovo's 1.8 million people, 70 percent of whom are younger than 35.

"Kosovo is led by a corrupt government that only takes care of its own interests and is ready to sign the most harmful agreements, only to secure international support and extend its rule," 27-year-old law graduate Bedri Hamiti, who has spent five years looking for a job, said ahead of the rally.

According to the World Bank, the unemployment rate in Kosovo is around 40 percent and it remains one of the poorest parts of Europe.

Protesters overwhelmingly waved the red-and-black flag of neighbouring Albania rather than the blue-and-yellow flag of Kosovo, seeing the former as a better representation of the population.

They held banners calling for Mustafa and Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci -- the frontrunner to become president this year -- to step down.

Police said about 15,000 attended the rally, which appeared to be a conservative estimate.

President Atifete Jahjaga said the people of Kosovo had a "democratic right" to make their wishes known through a demonstration but appealed ahead of the march for a "dignified and peaceful protest".

For the past four months, opposition MPs have effectively blocked the normal functioning of parliament by releasing tear gas in the chamber at the start of every session in protest against the deal with Belgrade.

The 1998-1999 conflict in Kosovo ended after a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, and Kosovo subsequently became a United Nations protectorate until independence was declared.

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