Serbia puts its troops on high alert on the border with Kosovo following clashes
PRISTINA, Kosovo — Serbia placed its troops on the border with Kosovo on high alert on Friday following clashes between ethnic Serbs and Kosovo police that left more than a dozen injured on both sides.
Serbs from northern Kosovo, who make up the majority in that region, were trying to block the entrance to municipal buildings to prevent newly elected ethnic Albanian officials from entering.
Police fired tear gas and several cars were set on fire. In response to the clashes, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he had put the military on “high alert”. Vucic also said he had ordered an “urgent” movement of Serbian troops closer to the border with Kosovo.
Vucic will take part in a support rally in Belgrade after two mass shootings earlier this month killed 18 people and injured 20 others.
He said in a statement that because of the “violence” against Kosovo Serbs, Serbia demanded that NATO-led troops stationed in Kosovo protect them from Kosovo police.
The Kosovo police have acknowledged their increased presence in the north “to help the mayors of the northern municipalities of Zvecan, Leposavic and Zubin Potok to exercise their right to work”.
Police said five officers were injured by stun grenades and other hard objects thrown by protesters. A police car was set on fire while three others were damaged. Police also reported that gunshots were heard.
The police used tear gas to disperse the crowd and let the new officials into the offices. Kosovo Serb hospital officials said about 10 protesters were injured.
US Ambassador to Kosovo Jeff Hovenier condemned “the ongoing action by Kosovar authorities to gain access to municipal buildings in northern Kosovo. Today’s violent measures must be stopped immediately,” he tweeted.
The new mayors of three municipalities in northern Kosovo, which is mainly populated by an ethnic Serb minority, have been prevented from entering buildings, with small groups of Serbs keeping their hands raised at the entrances to the municipalities, apparently to signify that they were not there to take part in the violence, wrote the Albanian site indexonline.net, also showing photos.
In Zvecan, the Kosovo-online.com site showed clashes with the police in front of the public building while in Leposavic they had also blocked the main square with cars and trucks.
Earlier, the Serbs also turned on their alarm sirens in the four municipalities, including the main northern city of Mitrovica, in a warning sign and a call for assembly, “sirens which are used by criminal structures for mobilization and rallies,” police said.
The April 23 snap election was widely boycotted by ethnic Serbs and only ethnic Albanians or other representatives of smaller minorities were elected to mayoral positions and assemblies.
Local elections have been held in four Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo after Serb representatives quit their posts last year to protest the creation of the association, which would coordinate work on education, healthcare health, land use planning and economic development at the local level.
While ethnic Kosovo Serbs demand autonomy, Kosovo Albanians fear that the association will turn into a new mini-state like the Srpska Republika in Bosnia.
A 2013 Pristina-Belgrade agreement on this plan was later declared unconstitutional by Kosovo’s Constitutional Court, which ruled that it did not include other ethnicities and could involve the use of executive powers to impose laws.
Both sides have tentatively agreed to back an EU plan on how to proceed, but tensions continue to simmer. The question of association is one of the main ones, for which both the United States and the European Union are putting pressure on Kosovo.
The United States and the EU have stepped up efforts to help resolve the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, fearing renewed instability in Europe as war rages in Ukraine. The EU has made it clear to Serbia and Kosovo that they need to normalize their relations to move forward with their intentions to join the bloc.
The conflict in Kosovo erupted in 1998 when separatist ethnic Albanians rebelled against Serbian rule, and Serbia responded with brutal repression. About 13,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, died. The NATO military intervention in 1999 finally forced Serbia to withdraw from the territory. Washington and most EU countries have recognized Kosovo as an independent state, but Serbia, Russia and China have not.
Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania, Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report from Belgrade.