Serbia placed its army on high alert on Friday and ordered some units to move closer to the border with Kosovo after a small group of protesters and police clashed in a predominantly Serb town in northern Kosovo.
“An urgent movement (of troops) to the Kosovo border has been ordered,” Defense Minister Milos Vucevic said in a live TV broadcast. “It is clear that the terror against the Serbian community is happening in Kosovo.”
Police used tear gas to disperse Serbs gathering in front of municipal buildings in the Kosovar town of Zvecan in an attempt to prevent a newly elected ethnic Albanian mayor from entering his office, news agencies reported.
In several videos posted online, gunshots and shock bombs could be heard and several cars set on fire.
About 10 people were slightly injured in the clashes, a hospital official Danica Radomirovic told local media.
Police said five officers were injured by stun grenades and other hard objects thrown by protesters.
The Tanjug news agency said several vehicles from the NATO peacekeeping mission to Kosovo have arrived in the center of Zvecan.
Kosovo police did not comment on the incidents, only confirming that officers helped newly elected mayors reach their buildings.
Germany, US condemn violence
Britain, France, Italy, Germany and the United States have called on Kosovo authorities to de-escalate the situation.
“We condemn Kosovo’s decision to enforce access to municipal buildings in northern Kosovo, despite our call for restraint,” the countries said in a joint statement on the British government’s website.
“We call on the Kosovo authorities to step back and de-escalate immediately, and to work closely with EULEX (the EU mission) and KFOR (the NATO mission in Kosovo.”
“We are concerned about Serbia’s decision to raise the level of preparedness of its forces on the border with Kosovo and call on all sides 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, undermined and undermined our efforts to help normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia.” will affect our bilateral relations with Kosovo”.
He called on all parties to “abstain from further actions that inflame tensions and promote conflict”.
Unrest follows contested elections
Kosovo’s early elections on 23 April were largely boycotted by ethnic Serbs, and only ethnic Albanians or representatives of other smaller minorities were elected to mayoral posts and assemblies.
Serbs in the northern region of Kosovo do not accept Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, which came nearly a decade after the end of the Kosovo war. They still see Belgrade as their capital.
Ethnic Albanians make up more than 90% of Kosovo’s population, with some 50,000 Serbs only the majority in the northern region.
The Serbian army has been put on high alert several times in recent years over tensions with Kosovo – most recently in December after Serbs erected barricades to protest the arrest of a former police officer.
The governments of Kosovo and Serbia reached a verbal agreement in March on a US-backed plan to ease tensions by granting local Serbs more autonomy, with the government in Pristina retaining ultimate authority.
Pro-Vucic protest planned in Belgrade
The clashes in Kosovo overshadowed a planned pro-Serbian government protest on Friday, which saw tens of thousands of people gather in the Serbian capital Belgrade.
President Aleksandar Vucic is facing an unprecedented uprising against his autocratic rule amid the crisis caused by two mass shootings that left the nation stunned.
In response to Vucic’s call for what he called “the largest gathering in Serbia’s history,” his supporters, many wearing identical T-shirts with his portrait, were bussed to Belgrade from all over the Balkan country, as well as the neighboring Kosovo and Bosnia.
The country’s opposition blames Vucic for sowing discord and hopelessness that they say indirectly led to the mass shootings on May 3 and 4.
Eighteen people were killed and 20 injured in the shootings – many of them schoolchildren who were shot by a classmate.
At the meeting, Vucic is expected to announce that he is stepping down from the helm of his Serbian Progressive Party and forming “a movement” that will unite all “patriotic forces” in the country.
He could also call new parliamentary elections for September, which the opposition could try to block.
mm/nm (AFP, AP, Reuters)