Small groups of ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo have clashed with police while trying to block the entrance of municipal buildings to prevent recently elected officials from entering, according to local media.
Police fired tear gas and several cars were set ablaze on Friday.
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In response to the clashes, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said in a written statement carried on state-run RTS television that he put the army on a “higher state of alert”.
Vucic also said that he ordered an “urgent” movement of Serbian troops to the border with Kosovo.
“An urgent movement [of troops] to the Kosovo border has been ordered,” defence minister Milos Vucevic said in a live TV broadcast. “It is clear that the terror against the Serb community in Kosovo is happening,” he said.
Media reports also said that because of “violence” against Kosovo Serbs, Vucic demanded that NATO-led troops stationed in Kosovo protect them from the Kosovo police.
Kosovo police acknowledged their increased presence in the north “to assist mayors of the northern communes of Zvecan, Leposavic and Zubin Potok to exert their right of work at the official objects”.
New mayors in three communes in northern Kosovo, which is mostly populated by ethnic Serbs who are a minority in the greater country, were prevented from entering the buildings by small groups of Serbs, Albanian Indeksonline news website reported. The protesters put their hands up at the entrance of the municipalities apparently in a sign that they were not there to take part in violence, according to the report.
Police fired tear gas in the town of Zvecan to disperse a crowd from in front of a municipality building. The protesters were trying to prevent a newly-elected ethnic Albanian mayor from entering his office following an election which Kosovo Serbs had boycotted.
In Leposavic, they also had blocked the main square with cars and trucks.
Earlier, Serbs also switched on their alarm sirens in the four communes, including in the main northern Mitrovica town, in a warning sign and call to gather.
‘Serbia bears full responsibility’
In a statement, the Kosovo police said five of its officers were slightly injured when protesters pelted them with rocks and other objects. Four police vehicles were attacked, including one that was set ablaze, the statement said. Gunfire was also heard in the area, it said.
About 10 people sought medical attention in a local hospital for light injuries and the effects of tear gas, local Serb health authorities said.
Blerim Vela, chief of staff of Kosovo’s President Vjosa Osmani accused “Serbia’s illegal and criminal structures” for escalating tensions and actions against law enforcement bodies.
“Violence will not prevail. Serbia bears full responsibility for the escalation,” he said in a statement.
Several vehicles from the NATO peacekeeping mission in Kosovo have been seen in the vicinity of the site of the incident, while helicopters flew over the area, a Reuters reporter said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the police action on Friday, saying that it was taken against the advice of Washington.
“These actions have sharply and unnecessarily escalated tensions, undermining our efforts to help normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia and will have consequences for our bilateral relations with Kosovo,” Blinken said in a statement.
“We call on Prime Minister Albin Kurti to reverse course and on all sides to refrain from any further actions that will inflame tensions and promote conflict.”
Chris Murphy, a US Democratic senator and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee who recently visited Kosovo said he was “caught … by surprise” by the incident.
“As a friend of Kosovo I am caught totally by surprise and he [Kurti] should end this provocation immediately,” Murphy wrote on Twitter.
Nemanja Starovic, state secretary of the Serbian ministry of defence told Al Jazeera that Friday’s incident was a “unilateral attempt by Pristina Albanian authorities to forcefully install Albanian mayors in the four municipalities in the north of Kosovo, which does have a Serbian majority.
“This comes one month after the sham elections that have been organised there with the participation and turnout of only 3 percent of the electorate,” Starovic said.
“Because of all of that, the Serbian population decided to peacefully, non-violently protest against the instalment of those mayors. [Protesters] were met with brute force with hundreds of Albanian police personnel.”
The April 23 snap election was largely boycotted by ethnic Serbs and only ethnic Albanian or other smaller minority representatives were elected in the mayoral posts and assemblies.
Local elections were held in four Serb-dominated communes in northern Kosovo after Serb representatives left their posts in protest last year and the Serbian community has demanded the establishment of a promised association of Serbian municipalities in Kosovo, which would coordinate work on education, healthcare, land planning and economic development at the local level.
With Kosovo’s ethnic Serbs demanding autonomy, Kosovar Albanians fear that the association may turn into a new mini-state like Srpska Republika in Bosnia.
The establishment of the association was originally a part of the 2013 Pristina-Belgrade agreement, but was later declared unconstitutional by Kosovo’s Constitutional Court, which ruled that it was not inclusive of other ethnicities and could entail the use of executive powers to impose laws.
The two sides have tentatively agreed to back an EU plan forward, but tensions have continued to simmer.
Both the United States and the European Union are pressing Kosovo on the association issue.
The US and the EU have stepped up efforts to help solve the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, fearing further instability in Europe as the war rages in Ukraine.
The EU has made it clear to both Serbia and Kosovo that they must normalise relations to advance in their intentions to join the bloc.
The conflict in Kosovo erupted in 1998 when separatist ethnic Albanians rebelled against Serbia’s rule, and Serbia responded with a brutal crackdown.
About 13,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, died.
NATO’s military intervention in 1999 eventually forced Serbia to pull out of the territory.
Washington and most EU countries have recognised Kosovo as an independent state, but Serbia, Russia and China have not.