Europe

Sparks fly as Kosovo police increase presence in Serb-majority north

Increased police presence in ethnic Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo following several incidents in recent days has sparked further tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.

The spike in hostilities was launched by Pristina’s call for snap elections in four Serb-dominated communes in the north. 

The Serbs in the north reject Pristina’s authority and Kosovo’s independence from Belgrade. 

The elections, scheduled for 18 and 25 December, were prompted by the abandonment of local posts by Serb minority representatives, in another sign of spurning the authority of Prime Minister Albin Kurti and his government.

The mass departure in November — estimated to have involved more than 600 officials and police officers — was caused by the ongoing licence plate row between Kosovo and Serbia.

The months-long political standoff over a government decision to force a replacement of Belgrade-issued car licence plates with domestic ones resulted in large-scale protests, but also property damage and attacks on Kosovo law enforcement officials, according to the government in Pristina.

Kosovo police on Friday said one officer was injured by gunmen after increasing its presence.

A police officer was “slightly wounded,” and a police car was damaged after armed men fired from a vehicle in the village of Sërboc/Srbovac, in the municipality of Zveçan/Zvečan, 50 kilometres north of the capital Pristina, a statement said.

The injured officer was taken to the hospital and police are investigating the case.

Earlier this week, some local electoral committee offices were damaged, and shooting was heard in those communities, raising fears of further escalation of the long-simmering tensions.

Kosovo police said explosions were heard and shots fired on Tuesday as it escorted a state election commission delegation to visit municipalities in the Serb majority areas in the north, but no injuries were reported.

“The Central Elections Commission (KQZ) has requested the Kosovo Police to assist in the preparation of local elections in municipalities across the country,” the police said in a statement.

This and other threats to the safety of citizens and police officers alike led to increased police deployment in the north, according to Interior Minister Xhelal Sveçla.

The deployment is said to have been limited to a handful of so-called “mixed” neighbourhoods in the town of North Mitrovica.

Belgrade mulls bringing in its army, needs NATO permission

In the meantime, Serbia’s Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said Friday the country’s leadership was close to demanding the deployment of their security troops to Kosovo, claiming the lives of minority Serbs there were being threatened. 

The return of Belgrade’s troops to the former Serbian province could dramatically increase tensions in the Balkans.

Serbian officials claim a UN resolution passed to allow NATO presence in the country also allows some 1,000 Serbian troops to return to Kosovo.

Yet the resolution is tied to the peace agreement signed between NATO and the Serbian representatives, which establishes a land and air safety zone that Serbian troops can not pass when tensions are heightened.

NATO intervened in Serbia and Montenegro in 1999 to end the war and push the Belgrade troops out of Kosovo following Belgrade’s bloody crackdown against majority Albanians in 1999, resulting in ethnic cleansing.

The NATO-led peacekeepers who have been stationed in Kosovo since the war and have the final say on security matters would have to give the green light for Serbian troops to go there. 

This is highly unlikely to happen because it would de-facto mean handing over security of Kosovo’s Serb-populated northern regions to Belgrade forces.

Brnabić, meanwhile, accused Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti of bringing the region “to the edge” of another war.

“Serbs do not feel safe and (physically) threatened, including children in kindergartens,” according to Brnabić.

Kosovo’s president, Vjosa Osmani, responded to the statements by saying “no Serb soldier or police officer would set foot on Kosovo’s soil again.”

“The open threat for police and military aggression from Serbia testifies that the hegemonic policy continues in that state,” Osmani said on social media. “That should be clearly refuted and opposed by the whole democratic world.”

Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and has been recognised as such by most EU member states, the UK, and the US, among others.

Serbia rejects this as illegal, backed by the likes of Russia and China. The government in Belgrade has since been accused by Pristina of allowing the Kremlin to create another conflict in Europe.

Later last month, under EU mediation and with US direct assistance, Pristina and Belgrade reached a deal that Serbia would stop issuing licence plates now used in Kosovo, and Kosovo’s government would stop further actions to deny the re-registration of vehicles.

Brussels has warned Serbia and Kosovo they must resolve their dispute and normalise relations to be eligible for membership in the EU.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said that the NATO-led mission in Kosovo “remains vigilant”.

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