Serbia on Friday placed its army on high alert and ordered some units closer to the border with Kosovo after a small group of protesters and police clashed in a Serb-majority town in the northern Kosovo.
“An urgent movement (of troops) towards the Kosovo border has been ordered,” Defense Minister Milos Vucevic said in a live TV broadcast. “It is clear that terror against the Serbian community in Kosovo is happening.”
Police used tear gas to disperse Serbs who gathered outside municipal buildings in the Kosovo town of Zvecan, trying to prevent a newly elected Albanian mayor from entering his office, news agencies reported.
In various videos uploaded, gunshots and shock bombs were heard and several cars were set on fire.
About 10 people were lightly injured in the clashes, hospital official Danica Radomirovic told local media.
Police said five officers were injured by stun grenades and other hard objects thrown by protesters.
Tanjug news agency reported that several vehicles from the NATO peacekeeping mission in Kosovo arrived at the center of Zvecan.
Kosovo police did not comment on the incidents but only confirmed that officers were helping the newly elected mayors to their premises.
Germany and the United States condemn the violence
Britain, France, Italy, Germany and the United States have called on Kosovo authorities to defuse the situation.
“We condemn Kosovo’s decision to force access to municipal buildings in northern Kosovo despite our call for restraint,” the countries said in a joint statement posted on the UK government’s website.
“We call on the authorities in Kosovo to immediately step back and de-escalate, and to coordinate closely with EULEX (the EU mission) and KFOR (the NATO mission in Kosovo.”
“We are concerned by Serbia’s decision to raise the level of readiness of its armed forces on the border with Kosovo and call on all parties to exercise maximum restraint, avoiding inflammatory rhetoric.”
Earlier, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Kosovo’s actions went against US and European advice and “have sharply and unnecessarily escalated tensions, undermining our efforts to help normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia and will affect our bilateral relations with Kosovo”.
He called on all parties to “refrain from any further actions that may inflame tensions and foster conflict”.
Unrest follows controversial election
Kosovo’s early election on April 23 was widely boycotted by ethnic Serbs, and only ethnic Albanians or other representatives of smaller minorities were elected to mayoral positions and assemblies.
Serbs in the northern Kosovo region do not accept Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, which came almost a decade after the end of the Kosovo war. They still consider Belgrade as their capital.
Ethnic Albanians form over 90% of Kosovo’s population, with some 50,000 Serbs only the majority in the northern region.
The Serbian military has been placed on heightened alert several times in recent years due to tensions with Kosovo – most recently in December after Serbs erected barricades to protest the arrest of a former police officer.
A US-EU backed plan was verbally endorsed by the governments of Kosovo and Serbia in March to defuse tensions by granting local Serbs more autonomy, with the government in Pristina retaining ultimate authority .
Pro-Vucic demonstration planned in Belgrade
The clashes in Kosovo overshadowed a protest planned for Friday by the pro-Serb government, which saw tens of thousands of people converge on the Serbian capital, Belgrade.
President Aleksandar Vucic is facing an unprecedented uprising against his autocratic rule amid the crisis sparked by two mass shootings that stunned the nation.
Responding to Vucic’s call for what he called ‘the biggest rally in Serbia’s history’, his supporters, many wearing identical T-shirts with his likeness, were bused to Belgrade from all over the Balkan country as well as neighboring Kosovo and Bosnia.
The country’s opposition accuses Vucic of sowing division and despair which they say indirectly led to the May 3-4 mass shootings.
Eighteen people died and 20 were injured in the shooting – including many schoolchildren who were shot by a classmate.
During the rally, Vucic is expected to announce that he is stepping down as head of his Serbian Progressive Party and forming “a movement” that will unite all “patriotic forces” in the country.
He could also call new legislative elections for September, which the opposition could try to block.
mm/nm (AFP, AP, Reuters)