Tensions soared in northern Kosovo after unknown attackers exchanged gunfire with police and threw a stun grenade at European Union officers overnight.
Hundreds of ethnic Serbs, outraged over the arrest of a former police officer, gathered early Sunday at roadblocks they erected the previous day, paralysing traffic at two border crossings from Kosovo towards Serbia.
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Although Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, Belgrade does not recognise it and encourages the Serb community in northern Kosovo to defy Pristina’s authority.
Hours after the barricades went up, police said they suffered three successive attacks on Saturday night on one of the roads leading to the border.
“The police units, in self-defence, were forced to respond with firearms to the criminal persons and groups who were repelled and left in an unknown direction,” police said in a statement.
The European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) said they were also targetted with a stun grenade, but no officers were injured.
“This attack, as well as the attacks on Kosovo police officers, are unacceptable,” EULEX said in a press release.
EULEX – which has some 134 Polish, Italian and Lithuanian police officers deployed in the north – called on “those responsible to refrain from more provocative actions”, and said it urged the Kosovo institutions “to bring the perpetrators to justice”.
Animosity has mounted after Kosovo scheduled local elections in four ethnic Serb-majority municipalities in the north for December 18, with the main Serb political party saying it would stage a boycott.
Explosions and shootings were heard earlier this week as election authorities tried to prepare the ground for the vote, while an ethnic Albanian policeman was wounded after law enforcement was deployed in the region.
“The barricades from masked criminals in the north must be removed immediately,” Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti said in a statement.
He added that his government was in contact with NATO’s peacekeeping mission, which has more than 3,000 troops on the ground.
Polls were due in Northern Mitrovica, Zubin Potok, Zvecan and Leposavic after ethnic Serb representatives resigned from their posts in November to protest a decision by Kosovo’s government to ban Serbia-issued vehicle licence plates. Serb lawmakers, prosecutors, and police officers also abandoned local government posts.
To defuse tensions, Kosovo decided on Saturday to postpone the elections after President Vjosa Osmani met her country’s political leaders and decided to hold the vote in the northern municipalities on April 23, 2023.
The embassies of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States – along with the local EU office – welcomed the postponement, branding it a “constructive decision” that “advances efforts to promote a more secure situation in the north”.
The Kosovo police presence was recently increased in those areas, and EULEX has been present with its police officers, too.
‘Forcefully and decisively’
Animosity remains high, with Serbia and Kosovo intensifying their exchange of words.
“We do not want a conflict. We want peace and progress, but we shall respond to aggression with all our powers,” Kurti posted on social media. “Let me be clear: the Republic of Kosovo will defend itself – forcefully and decisively.”
Kurti told the EU and US that not denouncing such violence, which he said was orchestrated by Belgrade, “would push it [to] destabilise Kosovo”.
On Saturday, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic said he would formally request NATO permission to deploy Serbian troops in northern Kosovo, while conceding this was most unlikely to be granted. Such a move could dramatically increase the already-high tensions.
Serbian officials claim a United Nations resolution that formally ended the country’s bloody crackdown against majority Kosovo Albanian separatists in 1999 allows for some 1,000 Serb troops to return to Kosovo.
NATO bombed Serbia to end the war and push its troops out of Kosovo.