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Tensions escalate after gunmen attack police in northern Kosovo

Tensions soared in northern Kosovo after unknown assailants exchanged fire with police and threw a stun grenade at European Union officers overnight.

Hundreds of ethnic Serbs, outraged by the arrest of a former police officer, gathered early Sunday at roadblocks they had erected the day before, paralyzing traffic at two border crossings from Kosovo into Serbia.

Although Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, Belgrade does not recognize this and encourages the Serb community in northern Kosovo to challenge Pristina’s authority.

Hours after the barricades went up, police said they suffered three successive attacks Saturday night on one of the roads leading to the border.

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“The police units, in self-defense, were forced to respond with firearms to the individuals and criminal groups that were repelled and abandoned in an unknown direction,” the police said in a statement.

European Union police deployed to the region as part of the EULEX rule of law mission said they were also attacked 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 further provocative actions”, saying it urged Kosovo’s institutions to “bring the perpetrators to Justice”.

‘Masked criminals’

Animosity rose after Kosovo scheduled local elections in four ethnic Serb-majority municipalities in the north for December 18, and the main Serb political party said it would organize a boycott.

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Explosions and gunfire were heard earlier this week as electoral authorities tried to prepare the ground for the vote, while an ethnic Albanian policeman was injured after law enforcement was deployed to the region.

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“The barricades of 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 the NATO peacekeeping mission, which has more than 3,000 troops on the ground.

Kosovar Serbs block the road near the village of Rudine, North Mitrovica, Kosovo, December 10, 2022. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski
Kosovar Serbs block the road near Rudine village, North Mitrovica, Kosovo [Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters]

Elections in Northern Mitrovica, Zubin Potok, Zvecan and Leposavic were due to come after ethnic Serb representatives resigned from their posts in November to protest the Kosovo government’s decision to ban Serbian-issued vehicle license plates. Serbian legislators, prosecutors and police officers also left their posts in the local government.

To defuse tensions, Kosovo decided on Saturday to postpone the elections after President Vjosa Osmani met with her country’s political leaders and decided to hold the vote in northern municipalities on April 23 next year.

The embassies of France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US, along with the local EU office, welcomed the postponement, calling it a “constructive decision” that “promotes efforts to promote a safer situation in the north”.

The presence of the Kosovo Police has recently been increased in these areas and EULEX has also been present with its police officers.

‘Strongly and decisively’

Animosity remains high with Serbia and Kosovo stepping up their exchange of words.

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“We don’t want a conflict. We want peace and progress, but we will respond to the aggression with all our might,” Kurti posted on social media. “Let me be clear: the Republic of Kosovo will defend itself, forcefully and decisively.”

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Kurti told the European Union and the United States that not denouncing such violence, which he said was orchestrated by Belgrade, “would push to destabilize Kosovo.”

On Saturday, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he would formally request NATO’s permission to deploy Serbian troops in northern Kosovo, though he admitted it was unlikely he would be granted. Such a move could dramatically increase tensions that are already high.

Serb officials say a UN resolution that formally ended the country’s bloody crackdown on the breakaway Kosovar Albanian majority in 1999 allows some 1,000 Serb troops to return to Kosovo.

NATO bombed Serbia to end the war and drive its troops out of Kosovo.

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