Ethnic Serbs gather in northern Kosovo town after clashes with Nato peacekeepers
Hundreds of ethnic Serbs have gathered in a town in northern Kosovo, days after clashes that injured 30 soldiers from a Nato-led peacekeeping force and more than 50 Serbs.
The incident has provoked fears of a renewal of the region’s bloody conflicts and prompted the Western military alliance to send in additional troops.
The Serbs reiterated that they want the Kosovo special police and ethnic Albanian officials they call “fake” mayors to withdraw from northern Kosovo. The crowd then spread a huge Serbian flag.
Wednesday’s protest outside the city hall in Zvecan, 28 miles north of the capital, Pristina, was peaceful as of late Wednesday morning.
On Monday, ethnic Serbs tried to storm municipal offices and fought with both Kosovo police and the peacekeepers.
Serbs are a minority in Kosovo, but a majority in parts of the country’s north bordering Serbia. Many reject the Albanian-majority territory’s claim of independence from Serbia.
A former province of Serbia, Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence is also not recognised by Belgrade.
The United States and the European Union have recently stepped up efforts to resolve the dispute as the war rages in Ukraine.
Nato said it will send 700 more troops to northern Kosovo to help quell violent protests after the clashes on Monday. The Nato-led peacekeeping mission, KFor, currently consists of almost 3,800 troops.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken urged “all parties to take immediate actions to de-escalate tensions”.
Mr Blinken described violence against soldiers from the multinational force known as KFor as “unacceptable”.
A German government spokesperson said Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron plan to meet with the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo on Thursday.
Spokesman Steffen Hebestreit told reporters in Berlin that the meeting will take place on the sidelines of the European Political Community meeting in Chisinau, Moldova.
The confrontation first unfolded last week after ethnic Albanian officials, who were elected in a vote that Serbs overwhelmingly boycotted, entered municipal buildings to take office with an escort of Kosovo police.
When Serbs tried to block the officials, Kosovo police fired tear gas to disperse them.
In Zvecan on Monday, angry Serbs again clashed first with the police and later with Nato-led troops who tried to secure the area.
Speaking at an international security forum in Bratislava, Slovakia, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said Kosovo police will not accept the Serbs’ demands for a complete withdrawal, but hinted at the possibility of early local elections.
“As long as there is a violent mob outside the municipal buildings, we must have our special units,” he said.
“If there would have been peaceful protests asking for early election, that would attract my attention and perhaps I would consider that request.”
Mr Kurti also suggested that Russia may have a hand in the latest flareup, pointing to protesters who “do graffiti with letter Z, showing admiration for despotic President Putin and for the Russian military aggression and invasion in Ukraine.”
Russia is a close Serbian ally although Belgrade populist leaders claim to be seeking European Union membership.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday that Moscow is monitoring the situation in Kosovo and spoke in support of the Serbs.
“We are following that, we are unconditionally supporting Serbia, supporting the Serbs,” Mr Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.
“We believe that all legitimate rights and interests of Kosovo Serbs must be observed and ensured.”
Serbia has put the country’s military on its highest state of alert and sent more troops to the border with Kosovo.
While Washington and most EU nations recognise Kosovo’s statehood, Belgrade has the backing of Russia and China in rejecting it. Western officials have sharply criticised both Kosovo’s authorities for pushing to install the newly-elected mayors, and Serbs because of the violence.
Serbian officials have repeatedly warned that Serbia would not stand idle if Serbs in Kosovo come under attack.
The 1998-1999 war in Kosovo erupted when ethnic Albanian separatists launched a rebellion against Serbia, which responded with a brutal crackdown. The war ended after Nato bombing forced Serbia to pull out of the territory, and paved the way for the deployment of Nato-led peacekeepers.
The Balkan region is still reckoning with the aftermath of a series of bloody conflicts in the 1990s during the bloody breakup of the former country of Yugoslavia.
On Wednesday, United Nations judges imposed increased sentences for two allies of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who were convicted of an attempt to drive non-Serbs out of towns in Croatia and Bosnia during the wars in the 1990s.
Milosevic also led Serbia during its 1998-1999 war in Kosovo.