NATO peacekeepers face Kosovo-Serbs clashes to control the region


ZVEKAN, Kosovo (AP) Ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo were attacked as NATO-led peacekeepers attempted to occupy the offices of one of the municipalities where an Albanian mayor took office last week clashed with the same unit.

Clashes broke out between Serbs and police in the morning in the city, 45 kilometers north of the capital Pristina. In the afternoon, KFOR soldiers asked the Serbs to clear the way for two vehicles of the Kosovar Special Police.

Witnesses and local media said soldiers then used tear gas and stun grenades to protect Kosovar officials in vehicles and to disperse protesters. The assembled Serbs responded by throwing stones and other hard objects. The car was completely destroyed, but injuries have not yet been confirmed.

Previously, journalists were sent to public buildings for their own safety.

The violence is the latest in a series of heightened tensions over the past week. Serbia has put its troops on high alert and added to its border with Kosovo, which declared independence from Belgrade in 2008.

Kosovo and Serbia have been hostile for decades, and Belgrade refuses to recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty.

The United States and the European Union are stepping up efforts to resolve the Kosovo-Serbia conflict amid concerns that Russia’s war with Ukraine will further destabilize the European situation. The EU has made it clear to both Serbia and Kosovo that they need to normalize relations in order to move forward towards EU membership.

On Monday, the Kosovar Police and the NATO-led Kosovar Army (KFOR) were seen guarding buildings in the four northern municipalities of Zvekan, Reposavić, Zvin Potok and Mitrovica, which held early elections last month.

The vote was largely boycotted by the majority Serbs in these regions. Only Albanian or other ethnic minority representatives were elected to the mayoral office and parliament.

Police said the Serbs had gathered early in the morning at three town halls: Zvekan, Reposavić and Zvin Potok, but not Mitrovica in the north. They tried to invade Zbekan using force and tear gas. Police responded with tear gas spray, the statement said.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnavic has criticized the international response to events in Kosovo, citing the new mayor in a clear way that KFOR “does not protect the people, but the usurpers”. 

“But we have to keep the peace. All we have is peace,” she said. Defense Minister Milos Vucevic said the Serbian army will complete the deployment after the decision to raise the alert level. Vucevic, who said he wanted a political solution, also criticized KFOR’s position “appearing to protect the police from unarmed people”.

According to Goran Rakić, a Serbian local politician, Serbs want the new mayors, whom they called “illegal and illegal sheriffs”, to resign and resign, and for the special police to withdraw from northern Kosovo.

KFOR said it is increasing its presence in four municipalities, including Mitrovica. He called on states to refrain from actions that could lead to escalation and called on “both Belgrade and Pristina to join the EU-led dialogue.”

After meeting with Kosovar President Vijosa Osmani on Monday, U.S. Ambassador Jeff Hovenia said he would avoid situations in which officials from Western countries such as the U.S., France, Italy, Germany and the U.K. “forcibly enter public buildings.” 

He and EU ambassador Thomas Schnyog met with two mayors of northern municipalities to discuss “how we will carry out our duties to serve all our citizens”. The other two did not attend the informal meeting.

More than a dozen Serbs and five Kosovar police officers were injured in clashes last Friday. On the same day, Serb forces on the Kosovo border were put on high alert.

The ethnic Serb majority in the region of northern Kosovo tried to bar the newly elected Albanian officials from the city buildings. Kosovo police used tear gas to disperse the crowd and let new officers into the office.

The US and EU condemned the Kosovo government’s use of police forces to enter buildings in the city.

“Serbia will not stand still if Serbs are attacked in northern Kosovo,” Serbian President Alexander Vucic said Friday night at a rally in Belgrade with his supporters.

But any attempt by Serbia to send troops across the border would mean conflict with the NATO-led forces stationed there.

A 2013 agreement between Pristina and Belgrade to establish a Serbian association was later ruled unconstitutional by the Kosovo Constitutional Court. The Kosovo Constitutional Court said the plan does not include other ethnic groups and may involve the exercise of executive powers to enforce the law.

The two countries have tentatively agreed to back the EU’s plans on how to proceed, but tensions remain simmering. The Kosovo conflict erupted in 1998, when separatist Albanians rebelled against Serbian rule and Serbia responded with brutal repression. About 13,000 people, mostly Albanians, died. The 1999 NATO military intervention eventually forced Serbia to withdraw from the territory. Washington and most EU countries recognize Kosovo as an independent state, but Serbia, Russia and China do not.