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 has been caused by Pristina’s call for a snap election in four Serb-dominated communes in the north. 

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

The election, scheduled for 18 December, was 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 law enforcement on Friday said one officer was injured by gunmen after increasing police presence fearing tension in northern areas dominated by the ethnic Serb minority.

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

The injured officer was taken at 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 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 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 that formally ended the country’s bloody crackdown against majority Kosovo Albanians in 1999 resulting in ethnic cleansing allows for some 1,000 Serbian troops to return to Kosovo.

However, other agreements in place do not allow the Serbian military to enter the country.

After NATO intervened in Serbia and Montenegro in 1999 to end the war and push the Belgrade troops out of Kosovo, Serbia signed the Kumanovo Agreement, guaranteeing a complete pull-out and creating a buffer zone that prevents the Serbian forces from deploying in close proximity to Kosovo’s borders or in Kosovo itself.

The NATO-led peacekeepers who have been working in Kosovo since the war and have the final say on security matters would have to give a 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 are physically and life 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, Serbia’s former province, has declared independence in 2008, which has been recognised by most EU member states, the UK and the US, among others.

Serbia rejects this as yasa dışı, 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.

The Kosovo government’s decision to ban Serbia-issued licence plates pushed Serb lawmakers, prosecutors and police officers in Kosovo’s northern municipalities to abandon local governing posts in early November.

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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