KOSOVO: About 25 NATO peacekeeping troops protecting three town halls in northern Kosovo were wounded in clashes with Serb demonstrators on Monday, while Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić put the army on the highest level of battle alert.
The NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, known as KFOR, denounced the violence.
The KFOR contingent said that several Italian and Hungarian KFOR soldiers came under unjustified attacks and suffered fractures and burns from the explosion of incendiary devices while fending off the more active edges of the crowd.
Kristof Szalay-Bobrovniczky, the defence minister for Hungary, reported that seven of his country’s soldiers had suffered serious wounds and would be brought home for medical attention. He said that 20 soldiers had been wounded. Italian troopers were also wounded in the clashes.
Italy’s Giorgia Meloni went on to say that what is going on is completely wrong and irresponsible. She also stated that it is critical to avoid additional unilateral actions by the Kosovar authorities and that all parties involved take a step back immediately to reduce tensions.
Aleksandar Vucic, the president of Serbia, stated that 52 Serbs were hurt, three of them critically. Vjosa Osmani, President of Kosovo, accused his Serbian counterpart, President Vucic, of destabilising Kosovo.
“Serb illegal structures turned into criminal gangs have attacked Kosovo police, KFOR (peacekeeping) officers, and journalists. Those who carry out Vucic’s orders to destabilise the north of Kosovo must face justice,” Osmani wrote on Twitter.
Vucic accused Albin Kurti, the prime minister of Kosovo, of inciting tensions. He urged Serbs in Kosovo to stay out of fights with NATO troops.
The tense situation emerged after ethnic Albanian mayors were elected in northern Kosovo’s Serb-majority territory following elections that the Serbs boycotted, causing the US and its allies to rebuke Pristina on Friday.
Witnesses said that in Zvecan, one of the towns, the Kosovo police—now made up entirely of ethnic Albanians after Serbs left the force last year—used pepper gas to fend off a group of Serbs who had attempted to break past a security barrier and enter the municipal building.
Serbian demonstrators in Zvecan hurled stun grenades and tear gas at NATO soldiers. Serbs also got into a fight with the police in Zvecan and painted the letter “Z” on NATO trucks in reference to a Russian sign that was used during the conflict in Ukraine.
Near the Serbian border in Leposavic, American peacekeeping forces equipped with riot gear surrounded the town hall with barbed wire to defend it from hordes of enraged Serbs.
Later in the day, demonstrators flung eggs at a parked automobile that belonged to the new mayor of Leposavic.
According to Serbian Defence Minister Milos Vucevic, Vucic, who serves as the country’s top military commander, has increased the army’s battle readiness to the highest level.
This means that new orders for the placement of the army’s troops in predetermined locations were given by the Chief of the General Staff of the Serbian Armed Forces just before 2:00 p.m. (1200 GMT), as per Vucevic
Witnesses stated that NATO forces also sealed off Zubin Potok’s town hall to shield it from enraged local Serbs. Igor Simic, the deputy leader of the Serb List, the largest Kosovo Serb party with support from Belgrade, accused Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti of inciting tensions in the north.
“We are interested in peace. Albanians who live here are interested in peace, and only he (Kurti) wants to make chaos,” said Simic.
Serbs, who make up the majority in Kosovo’s north, have never acknowledged the country’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia and continue to view Belgrade as their capital more than 20 years after the Kosovo Albanian rebellion against repressive Serbian domination.
Over 90% of people in Kosovo are of ethnic Albanian descent, but northern Serbs have long pushed for the implementation of a 2013 agreement mediated by the EU that would have created an association of autonomous municipalities in their region.
In four Serb-majority towns, including North Mitrovica, where no disturbances were recorded on Monday, ethnic Albanian candidates won the mayoral elections in April as a result of the Serbs’ refusal to vote.
Serbs demand that the Kosovo government remove mayors who are of ethnic Albanian descent from town halls and reinstate the operations of local governments backed by Belgrade.
Police escorted three of the four mayors, who are of ethnic Albanian descent, into their offices on Friday. The police were attacked with rocks and used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd.
The United States and its allies, who have fervently supported Kosovo’s independence, chastised Pristina on Friday, claiming that placing mayors in Serb-majority areas without popular support undermined efforts to normalise relations.
After speaking on the phone with the head of foreign policy for the European Union over the weekend, Kurti tweeted in support of Pristina’s stance, “Emphasised that elected mayors will provide services to all citizens.”
According to Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, it is “impossible” to have mayors in municipalities where Serbs make up the majority.
Following the meeting with Kurti, the US ambassador to Kosovo, Jeffrey Hovenier, in a media interaction added, “We are concerned about reports today about violence against official property.”
“We’ve seen images of graffiti on KFOR and police vehicles, and we’ve heard of attacks on journalists, which we condemn; but it is not a proper response,” Jeffrey Hovenier continued.