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Serbs gather again in northern Kosovo after clashes

Riot police and KFOR peacekeepers clash with ethnic Serbs in Zvecan, Kosovo, Monday
Riot police and KFOR peacekeepers clash with ethnic Serbs in Zvecan, Kosovo, Monday - Copyright MALAYSIAN MARITIME ENFORCEMENT AGENCY/AFP Handout
Riot police and KFOR peacekeepers clash with ethnic Serbs in Zvecan, Kosovo, Monday - Copyright MALAYSIAN MARITIME ENFORCEMENT AGENCY/AFP Handout

The situation in northern Kosovo remained tense Tuesday as ethnic Serbs continued to gather in front of a town hall in Zvecan after violent clashes with NATO-led peacekeepers left 30 soldiers injured.

The NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) soldiers wearing full riot gear have put a metal barrier around the municipal building in Zvecan and are stopping several hundred Serbs from entering, an AFP journalist at the scene said.

Three armoured vehicles of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo police — whose presence always stirs controversy in Serb-majority northern areas — remained parked in front of the town hall.

Serbs — who account for about six percent of Kosovo’s population — boycotted last month’s elections in northern towns where they are in a majority, allowing ethnic Albanians to take control of local councils despite a minuscule turnout of under 3.5 percent of voters.

Many Serbs are demanding the withdrawal of Kosovo police forces, as well as the ethnic Albanian mayors they do not consider their true representatives.

Tensions flared after Serbs tried to force their way into the Zvecan town hall on Monday, but were repelled as Kosovo police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.

KFOR at first tried to separate protesters from the police, but later started to disperse the crowd using shields and batons. Protesters responded by hurling rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails at the soldiers.

A total of 30 peacekeepers were wounded in the clashes, including “fractures and burns from improvised explosive incendiary devices”, KFOR said.

Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic said 52 demonstrators were hurt, three of them “seriously”. Five Serbs were arrested for taking part in the clashes, according to Kosovo police.

– ‘Unprovoked attacks’ –

KFOR said the soldiers responded “to the unprovoked attacks of a violent and dangerous crowd” whilst carrying out its mandate in an impartial manner.

“To avoid the clashes between the parties and to minimise the risk of the escalation, KFOR peacekeepers prevented threats to the lives of Kosovo Serbs and Kosovo Albanians,” KFOR said.

“Both parties need to take full responsibility for what happened and prevent any further escalation, rather than hide behind false narratives.”

Kosovo police Tuesday described the situation in the north on Tuesday as “fragile but calm”, and called citizens “not to fall prey to calls for violent protests and provocations.

“The security situation in the north of the country has escalated and degraded to the point of endangering people’s lives,” police said.

Vucic met Tuesday in Belgrade with ambassadors of the so-called Quint — five powerful NATO members that focus on the Western Balkans — but also announced meetings with representatives of Russia and China.

“One-sided moves from Pristina bring violence against Serb community, which distances us from lasting peace and stability in the region,” Vucic wrote on Instagram after the meeting with Western diplomats.

“Swift withdrawal of false mayors and members of Pristina’s so-called special forces is a condition of preserving peace in Kosovo.”

– 19 Hungarians hurt –

NATO strongly condemned the attacks against KFOR troops, adding that such actions were “totally unacceptable”.

A total of 19 wounded soldiers belonged to a Hungarian KFOR contingent. Four of them needed hospital treatment “due to shrapnel injuries” and one soldier needed to be operated on, but “none of them is in a life-threatening condition,” Hungarian ambassador to Pristina Jozsef Bencze said.

Belgrade placed its army on high alert last week when tensions flared, and ordered forces towards the frontier with Kosovo.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and Belgrade and its allies Beijing and Moscow have refused to recognise it, effectively preventing Kosovo from having a seat at the United Nations.

Serbs in Kosovo remained largely loyal to Belgrade, especially in the north, where they make up a majority and reject every move by Pristina to consolidate its control over the region.

AFP
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