Twenty-five soldiers from a NATO-led peacekeeping force were injured in clashes with Serb protesters while defending three town halls in northern Kosovo, while Serbia’s president put the army on the highest level of combat alert.
The NATO-led peacekeeping Kosovo Force, or KFOR, condemned Monday’s violence, which erupted after ethnic Albanian mayors took office in northern Kosovo’s Serb-majority area following elections boycotted by the Serbs.
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“While countering the most active fringes of the crowd, several soldiers of the Italian and Hungarian KFOR contingent were the subject of unprovoked attacks and sustained trauma wounds with fractures and burns due to the explosion of incendiary devices,” it said in a statement.
— NATO Kosovo Force – KFOR (@NATO_KFOR) May 29, 2023
Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani accused her Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic of destabilising Kosovo.
“Serb illegal structures turned into criminal gangs have attacked Kosovo police, KFOR officers & journalists. Those who carry out Vucic’s orders to destabilise the north of Kosovo, must face justice,” Osmani tweeted.
Vucic said that 52 Serbs were injured in the clashes, three of them seriously.
The US and its allies rebuked Pristina on Friday for the rising tensions.
Clashes erupted earlier on Monday in Zvecan, one of the towns in north Kosovo, where state police – staffed entirely by ethnic Albanians after all Serbs quit the force last year – sprayed pepper gas to repel a crowd of Serbs who tried to force their way into the municipality building, witnesses said.
Serb protesters threw tear gas and stun grenades at NATO soldiers and spray-painted NATO vehicles with the letter Z, a Russian sign used in the war in Ukraine, according to the Reuters news agency.
In Leposavic, close to the border with Serbia, US peacekeeping troops in anti-riot gear placed barbed wire around the municipality building to protect it from hundreds of angry Serbs gathering nearby.
Protesters also pelted a nearby parked car belonging to the new mayor with eggs.
Vucic, who is also the commander-in-chief of the Serbian Armed Forces, raised the army’s combat readiness to the highest level, Defence Minister Milos Vucevic told reporters.
“This implies that immediately before 2pm [12:00 GMT], the chief of the general staff of the Serbian armed forces issued additional instructions for the deployment of the army’s units in specific, designated positions,” Vucevic said without elaborating.
Earlier, KFOR said in a statement that it “has increased its presence in four municipalities of northern Kosovo following the latest developments in the area”.
“In line with its mandate, KFOR is ready to take all necessary actions to ensure a safe environment in a neutral and impartial manner,” it said, adding that its commander was in close contact with the security agencies of Kosovo and Serbia.
The peacekeepers also acted to protect the town halls in Zubin Potok and North Mitrovica from possible threats.
Igor Simic, deputy head of the Serb List party, accused Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti of fuelling tensions in the north.
“We are interested in peace,” Simic told reporters in Zvecan. “Albanians who live here are interested in peace, and only he [Kurti] wants to make chaos.”
Serbs, who form a majority in Kosovo’s north, have never accepted its 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia and still see Belgrade as their capital more than 20 years after the Kosovo Albanian uprising against repressive Serbian rule.
Ethnic Albanians make up more than 90 percent of the population in Kosovo as a whole, but northern Serbs have long demanded the implementation of a European Union-brokered 2013 deal for the creation of an association of autonomous municipalities in their area.
In April this year, Serbs refused to take part in local elections, and ethnic Albanian candidates won the mayoral races in four Serb-majority municipalities with a 3.5 percent turnout.
Serbs demand that the Kosovo government remove ethnic Albanian mayors from town halls and allow local administrations financed by Belgrade to return to their duties.
Al Jazeera’s Assed Baig, reporting from Mitrovica, said tensions were “escalating”.
“It seems like the police were slightly caught off-guard this morning,” he said. “They pushed them back and used gas to get them to disperse, but so many people are there.”
Baig added that a NATO representative at the scene asked a Serb politician to tell the protesters to de-escalate the situation, but the official said the demonstrators would not listen to any such call and it would prompt further escalation.
On Friday, three of the four mayors were escorted into their offices by police, who were pelted with rocks and responded with tear gas and water cannon to disperse the protesters.
More than a dozen Serbs and five Kosovar police officers were injured in clashes that day, and Serbian troops on the border with Kosovo were put on high alert.
Bid to ease tensions
Local media reported on Monday that Western diplomats of the so-called Quint – five NATO members that focus on the Western Balkans – have summoned the ethnic Albanian mayors to a meeting in Pristina in a bid to ease tensions.
On Sunday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on the Kosovo government to lower tensions with Serbia.
“Pristina must de-escalate and not take unilateral, destabilising steps,” Stoltenberg tweeted.
After a phone call with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, Kurti tweeted: “Emphasised that elected mayors will provide services to all citizens.”
NATO peacekeepers were deployed in Kosovo after a 1999 NATO bombing campaign that drove the Serbian military and security police out of Kosovo, ending a brutal campaign against ethnic Albanian rebels.