- The US calls on the Prime Minister of Kosovo to reverse course
- Serbia puts army on alert
- Five Kosovo police, about 10 protesters injured
- Kosovo accuses Serbia of staging the incident
ZVECAN, Kosovo, May 26 (Reuters) – The United States and allies rebuked Kosovo for escalating tensions with Serbia on Friday, saying its use of force to install mayors in ethnic Serb areas undermined efforts to ease troubled relations with the neighboring country. improve Serbia.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic placed the army on full alert and ordered units closer to the border after clashes on Friday between Kosovo police and protesters opposing the ethnic Albanian mayors.
Police fired tear gas in the town of Zvecan to disperse a crowd trying to prevent a newly elected mayor from taking office after a vote was boycotted in April by the Kosovo Serb majority in four northern municipalities near the border with Serbia.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized the government of Kosovo for forcibly accessing municipal buildings and called on Prime Minister Albin Kurti to change course.
In a statement, Blinken said Kosovo’s actions went against the advice of the US and Europe and had “expanded tensions sharply and unnecessarily, undermining our efforts to help normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia and will have consequences for our bilateral relations with Kosovo”.
Britain, France, Italy, Germany and the United States issued a joint statement calling on Kosovo authorities to step back and de-escalate the situation.
The US has been Kosovo’s main backer politically, militarily and financially since independence from Serbia in 2008.
Ethnic Albanians make up more than 90% of the population in Kosovo, with Serbs only the majority in the northern region.
Serbs in the northern region of Kosovo, nearly a decade after the end of a war there, do not accept Serbia’s 2008 declaration of independence and still consider Belgrade their capital.
A Western-backed plan verbally approved by Kosovo and the Serbian government in March aimed to ease tensions by granting local Serbs more autonomy, with the government in Pristina retaining ultimate authority.
Some 50,000 Serbs living in four municipalities in northern Kosovo, including Zvecan, avoided the April 23 vote in protest that their demands for more autonomy had not been met.
Turnout in April’s elections was just 3.47% and local Serbs said they would not cooperate with the new mayors in the four municipalities – all from ethnic Albanian parties – because they do not represent them.
In a statement, Kosovo police said five officers suffered minor injuries when protesters pelted them with stones and other objects. Four police vehicles were attacked, including one that was set on fire, the statement said. Gunfire was also heard in the area, it said.
About 10 people sought medical attention at a local hospital for minor injuries and the effects of tear gas, local Serbian health authorities said.
Earlier, the police in the Kosovar capital of Pristina issued a statement saying they were assisting the newly elected mayors to enter municipal offices.
The mayor of Zvecan was successfully escorted to the town hall, a Reuters reporter heard on a police radio.
Speaking to thousands of supporters at his Serbian Progressive Party rally in Belgrade, Serbian Vucic announced a meeting of the country’s National Security Council to discuss the situation.
“We have never had a more difficult and bigger crisis,” he said, adding that while he would push for peace, Serbia “would not sit still” if ethnic Serbs were attacked in northern Kosovo.
Vucic accused the West of weakness and slowness to act.
Kosovo’s president Vjosa Osmani said police actions “against Vucic’s illegal structures and criminal gangs are legitimate, in fulfillment of their constitutional duties to defend all citizens indiscriminately.”
Several vehicles from the NATO peacekeeping mission in Kosovo were seen near the scene of the incident, while helicopters flew over the area, a Reuters reporter said.
In the late hours the situation was calm. Municipal buildings continued to be guarded by heavily armed police officers who blocked roads to and from the mayor’s offices in their armored vehicles.
EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano called on all parties to “de-escalate the tense situation and immediately restore calm”.
“The EU will not accept any further unilateral or provocative actions and the preservation of peace and security on the ground must be a priority,” he said in a statement.
Reporting by Reuters TV, Fatos Bytyci, Aleksandar Vasovic and Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade, Simon Lewis in Washington and Andrew Gray in Brussels; Edited by Frank Jack Daniel
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