Tensions Rise, Violence Reported In Kosovo As Ethnic Serbs Block Roads


Serbia and Kosovo have intensified their exchange of harsh rhetoric amid reports of heightened violence as roadblocks were set up by ethnic Serbs in the north of the country in protest against the arrest of a former ethnic Serb police officer.

No injuries have been reported from the violence that broke out on the night of December 10-11 following the arrest of the police officer and after Serbian officials suggested that Serbian military and police could be sent in across the Balkan countries' partially recognized border.

Explosions and shootings were reported as tensions rose between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs after six roadblocks were set up in solidarity with officer Dejan Pantic, who recently quit the force in protest and who was charged on December 10 with domestic terrorism after being accused of being a perpetrator of attacks on the elections commission in northern Kosovo.


Unidentified masked men were reportedly seen manning the barricades set up by ethnic Serbs, blocking the main roads leading to the border with Serbia. Kosovo authorities, meanwhile, closed two border crossings to both vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

Among the reported acts of violence was the throwing of a "stun grenade" at a vehicle operated by the European Union's mission tasked with patrolling the north of Kosovo. No injuries or material damage were reported.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in a December 11 tweet said that the European Union "will not tolerate attacks" on the mission, known as EULEX. He also said that "barricades must be removed immediately by groups of Kosovo Serbs" and urged Kosovo institutions "to bring the perpetrators to justice. "Calm must be restored," Borrell said, adding that "all actors must avoid escalation."

The U.S. embassies in Pristina and Belgrade said in a joint statement that the United States "expresses deep concern about the current situation in the north of Kosovo."

"We call on everyone to exercise maximum restraint, to take immediate action to achieve a de-escalation of the situation, and to refrain from provocative acts."

The EU and the United States have stepped up mediation efforts, fearing that uncertainties over the war in Ukraine and Serbia’s close ties with Russia could lead to a flare-up of tensions in Kosovo.

Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti, speaking at a press conference following a meeting of the National Security Council on December 11, said that all ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo are citizens of the country and said they should distance themselves from "criminal groups" and the "regime" of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, which he alleged "finances them and seeks war."

"We are not against anyone based on ethnicity, but on the behavior and actions of individuals or groups, in relation to the rule of law in Kosovo," Kurti said.

Kurti accused Serbia of attempting to threaten the territorial integrity of Kosovo and destabilize the entire Balkan region.

Kosovar and Serbian officials have increasingly engaged in heated rhetoric in recent days despite the postponement of contentious municipal elections that angered ethnic Serbs and international efforts to broker a deal to ease tensions over a dispute over license plates.

In the latest exchange, Kurti on December 11 responded harshly to the suggestion, made earlier by both Vucic and Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, that Serbian security forces be allowed to enter Kosovo amid the protests by ethnic Serbs in Kosovo over Pantic's arrest.

Kurti accused Vucic and Brnabic of threatening "military aggression, calling for the Serbian army to return to our territory," and said that while his country did "not seek conflict," Kosovo "will defend itself -- forcefully and decisively."

Brnabic on December 9 had suggested she might favor sending troops into northern Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs make up the majority of the population. Vucic followed up on December 10 by saying he would ask a NATO-led international peacekeeping force to permit the deployment of Serbian military police in the northern region of Kosovo, where members of the 1,000-stong ethnic Serb community say they are discriminated against.

Vucic said the international peacekeeping force, known as KFOR and made up of about 4,000 personnel, has been unable to maintain calm and Serbia had the right to send in its forces based on the 1999 UN Security Council Resolution 1244.


Serbian forces haven't been present in Kosovo, a country comprised largely of ethnic Albanians but with many ethnic Serbs in its northern areas, since they were driven out by NATO forces in 1999 during the Kosovar War in then-Yugoslavia.

In 2008, the majority ethnic Albanian government in Pristina declared independence from Serbia in a move quickly endorsed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and most major European powers. But while more than 100 countries recognize Kosovo as an independent state, Belgrade -- backed by ally Russia -- is outspoken in its rejection of Kosovar sovereignty.

The return of Serbian troops would threaten to further escalate already-high tensions between the two nations that are periodically marked by disturbances.

The most recent dispute began last month when hundreds of ethnic Serb police officers, judges, and local officials quit their jobs in Northern Kosovo to protest Pristina's demand that local motorists register their cars with Kosovar license plates instead of the old Serbian-era plates favored by some Serb nationalists. Belgrade awarded and promised to pay some of those who quit.


In response, Kosovo sent in ethnic Albanian police officers to fill the empty positions.

A deal was brokered by the European Union in November to end the long-running dispute over the license plate. In recent days Kurti has accused Vucic of creating a new crisis to undermine another EU proposal that would normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

Tensions also rose after Kosovo announced new elections slated for December 18 for mayors of four Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo after the incumbents quit.

A group of ethnic Serbs attacked several offices of the elections commission in northern Kosovo on December 6 to disrupt the upcoming vote.

Pantic, who recently quit his job and was among the alleged perpetrators, was arrested on December 10 and charged with terrorism and violating the nation’s constitutional order.

While the election plans were postponed the same day until April, protests broke out over Pantic's arrest.