Kosovo calls for NATO intervention after weekend of violence amid rising ethnic tensions
Kosovo’s prime minister has urged NATO peacekeepers to intervene after Serb minority protesters blocked roads and unknown gunmen exchanged gunfire with police over the weekend. end amid rising ethnic tensions in the country’s restive north.
At a press conference in Kosovo’s capital Pristina on Sunday, Prime Minister Albin Kurti called on the Kosovo Force (KFOR), an international peacekeeping force led by NATO, to guarantee the “freedom of movement”, while he accused the “criminal gangs” of blocking the roads.
A fragile peace has been preserved in Kosovo since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008 following the 1998-99 war in which NATO intervened to protect Kosovo’s majority Albanian population. Serbia does not recognize the independence of Kosovo.
In recent weeks, minority Serbs in northern Kosovo have responded with violent resistance to Pristina’s actions which they see as anti-Serb.
On Saturday, Serb protesters blocked major roads after the arrest of a former Serbian policeman. Kosovo police then came under small arms fire in several locations and returned fire in self-defense, the force said in a press release.
Meanwhile, a stun grenade was thrown at a car belonging to EULEX, the European Union mission in Kosovo. There are no casualties.
The ex-policeman is “accused of having committed terrorist acts and of undermining the constitutional order”, according to the Kosovo authorities, who accuse him of having organized attacks against the electoral commission and the police from the country.
Following the outbreak, the EU, US and NATO asked both sides for restraint and demanded the removal of barricades.
Kosovo authorities have also postponed until April the local elections which were due to take place next weekend.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said on Saturday that Belgrade would ask KFOR to let Serbia deploy military and police to Kosovo, but acknowledged there was no chance permission would be granted.
On Sunday, Vucic said Serbia demanded the release of all arrested Serbs from northern Kosovo, but also sought to defuse tensions in the region.
Vucic accused the authorities in Pristina and Kosovar Prime Minister Kurti of stoking tensions by taking “countless unilateral measures”.
“Every time we think we have something solved, another problem emerges,” Vucic said.
Serbian mayors of municipalities in northern Kosovo, along with local judges and some 600 police officers, resigned last month in protest at the Kosovo government’s decision to replace Belgrade-issued license plates with those issued by Pristina.
Kosovo then agreed to postpone the decision and Belgrade said it would stop issuing new Serbian car numbers.
Vucic demanded the release of the recently arrested Kosovo Serbs “because they are being held on false charges” and the withdrawal of the police from Kosovo, under an EU-brokered agreement that stipulates the consent of Serb mayors in the region to that.
“Kosovo police have no business in the north…especially people who are armed…to the teeth,” Vucic said. “This causes unease and fear among the Serbian population.”
Belgrade and Pristina are in talks in Brussels to try to normalize relations and the EU has already presented a plan.