More than 30 peacekeepers deployed in a NATO-led mission in Kosovo were injured on Monday in clashes with Serb protesters demanding the removal of recently elected ethnic Albanian mayors, while tension in the Balkan country.
The KFOR mission said it faced “unprovoked attacks” while fighting a hostile crowd, after demonstrators clashed with police and tried to force their way in. in a government building in the northern town of Zvecan.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said 52 Serbs were wounded, three seriously, while one was “wounded by two shots of (ethnic) Albanian special forces”.
Hungary’s defense minister said on Facebook that “more than 20 Hungarian soldiers” were among the wounded, with seven in a serious but stable condition.
Italy’s foreign minister said three of its soldiers were seriously wounded, and the country’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni joined NATO in calling for “all parties to take a step back to reduce tension”.
Kosovo Serbs boycotted last month’s elections in northern towns, which allowed ethnic Albanians to take control of local councils despite a low turnout of less than 3.5 percent of voters.
The government of Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti officially installed the mayors last week, defying calls to ease tensions with the European Union and the United States, both of which championed the territory’s 2008 independence from Serbia. .
Many Serbs have demanded the withdrawal of Kosovo police forces — whose presence in northern Kosovo has long fueled resistance — as well as ethnic Albanian mayors whom they do not consider their true representatives.
Fractures and burns
Earlier on Monday, groups of Serbs clashed with Kosovo police in front of the municipal building in Serb-majority Zvecan and tried to enter, after which law enforcement responded by firing tear gas, according to a journalist. of AFP in the scene.kf
NATO-led peacekeepers in the KFOR mission initially tried to separate the protesters from the police, but later began to disperse the crowd with shields and batons, an AFP journalist saw.
Many protesters responded by throwing stones, bottles and Molotov cocktails at the soldiers, but were quickly repelled a few hundred meters away from the Zvecan municipal building.
“While fighting the most active border forces, many soldiers of the Italian and Hungarian KFOR contingent became the subject of unprovoked attacks and received trauma injuries with fractures and burns due to to the explosion of incendiary devices,” KFOR said in a statement.
Eleven Italian soldiers were wounded with “three in a serious condition”, said Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani.
“We will not allow more attacks against KFOR,” Meloni said. “It is important to avoid further unilateral action by the Kosovo authorities and for all parties to take a step back to lower the tension”.
NATO strongly condemned the “unprovoked” attacks against KFOR troops, adding that such actions were “absolutely unacceptable”.
“The violence must stop immediately. We call on all sides to refrain from actions that further escalate tensions, and to engage in dialogue,” NATO said in a statement.
The Commander of the KFOR Mission, Division General Angelo Michele Ristuccia, condemned the “unacceptable” attacks and underlined that KFOR “will continue to fulfill its mandate without prejudice”.
Kosovo police said the demonstrators who rallied in the northern Kosovo town, home to many ethnic Serbs who reject Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, were “organized”.
“Protesters, using violence and throwing tear gas, tried to cross security cordons and make a forced entry into the municipal facility” in Zvecan, Kosovo police said in a statement.
“The police were forced to use legal means, such as (pepper) spray, to stop the protesters and control the situation.”
Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and Belgrade and its key allies Russia and China have refused to recognize it, effectively preventing Kosovo from sitting at the United Nations.
Kosovo’s Serbs remain loyal to Belgrade, especially in the north, where they form the majority and have rejected Pristina’s every move to consolidate its control over the region.
KFOR said it had strengthened its presence in northern Kosovo following the latest developments and urged Belgrade and Pristina to join an EU-led dialogue to reduce tensions.
“We call on all sides to refrain from actions that provoke tension or cause escalation,” KFOR said in a statement.
Police used tear gas on Friday to disperse Serbs in northern Kosovo protesting the mayor’s installation.
Belgrade responded by putting its army on high alert and ordering forces to the Serbian border in Kosovo.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking during a visit to Kenya, said “Serbs are fighting for their rights in northern Kosovo”.
“A huge explosion is looming in the heart of Europe, where NATO in 1999 carried out an aggression against Yugoslavia,” Lavrov said, referring to the 1999 NATO intervention against Belgrade that effectively ended the war. between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas.
The US ambassador and European Union envoy summoned ethnic Albanian leaders to a meeting in Pristina in a bid to ease tensions.
Two media teams from Pristina reported that protesters slashed their tires and painted their cars, while the association of local journalists called on law enforcement to provide a safe working environment for media.
After his first-round victory at the French Open on Monday, Serbian tennis superstar Novak Djokovic wrote the message “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence” on a television camera.
“Kosovo is our cradle, our fortress, the center of the most important things for our country,” Djokovic told reporters.
“I am against war, violence and conflict of any kind and I have always publicly shown that. Of course I have sympathy for all people but what happened in Kosovo is a precedent of international law.”