Over 30 NATO peacekeepers wounded in Kosovo protests clashes
At least 30 peacekeepers from the NATO Mission in Kosovo (KFOR) were injured after Serb demonstrators clashed against the election of ethnic Albanian elected mayors in the north of the country.
The ISFOR mission in Kosovo said it faced “unprovoked attacks” while confronting a hostile crowd after demonstrators clashed with police and tried to storm a government building in the northern town of Zvecan.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said that 52 Serbs were wounded, three of them seriously, while one was hit “twice by (ethnic) Albanian special forces”.
Hungary’s defense minister said on Facebook that “more than 20 Hungarian soldiers” were among the wounded, seven of whom were in 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 sides to step back to reduce tensions”.
Kosovo Serbs boycotted elections last month in northern towns, which allowed ethnic Albanians to take control of local councils despite a slim turnout of less than 3.5% of voters.
Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s government formally appointed the mayors last week, defying calls for an easing of tensions between the European Union and the United States, which championed the province’s independence from Serbia in 2008.
Many Serbs are calling for the withdrawal of the Kosovo Police Force – whose presence in northern Kosovo has long sparked resistance – as well as the ethnic Albanian mayors, whom they do not see as their true representatives.
Fractures and burns
Early Monday, groups of Serbs clashed with the Kosovo police in front of the town hall in Zvecan, which has a Serb majority. They tried to enter, after which the security men responded by firing tear gas, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.
At first, NATO-led peacekeepers on the Kfour mission tried to separate the protesters from the police, but later they began to disperse the crowd using shields and batons, an AFP journalist saw.
Many of the demonstrators responded by throwing stones, bottles and Molotov cocktails at the soldiers but were quickly pushed back a few hundred meters from the Zvekan town hall.
“While countering the most active mobilization parties, several soldiers of the Italian and Hungarian contingent in Kfur were subjected to unprovoked attacks and sustained traumatic injuries with fractures and burns due to exploding incendiary devices,” the KFOR said in a statement.
Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said 11 Italian soldiers had been wounded, three of them in serious condition.
“We will not tolerate further attacks against Kafour,” Meloni said. “It is necessary to avoid further unilateral actions by the Kosovo authorities and for all parties to take a step back to de-escalate tensions,” he added.
NATO strongly condemned the “unprovoked” attacks against Kfour’s forces, adding that such actions were “totally unacceptable”.
“The violence must stop immediately. We call on all parties to refrain from actions that further inflame tensions and to engage in dialogue,” NATO said.
ISFOR’s mission commander in Kosovo, Major General Angelo Michele Restuccia, criticized the “unacceptable” attacks and stressed that the force “will continue to fulfill its mandate with integrity”.
Kosovo police said “organised” protesters had gathered in cities in northern Kosovo, home to many Serbs who reject Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.
The Kosovo Police said in a statement that “the demonstrators attempted, using violence and throwing tear gas, to cross the security cordon and force their way into the municipal facility” in Zvekan.
“The police had to use legal means such as (pepper) spray to stop the demonstrators and control the situation,” he added.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. However, Belgrade and its two main allies Russia and China refused to recognize it, effectively barring Kosovo from a seat at the United Nations.
Serbs in Kosovo have remained largely loyal to Belgrade, especially in the north, where they form a majority and reject every move by Pristina to consolidate its control over the region.
The Kosovo Force said it had beefed up its presence in northern Kosovo in the wake of recent developments and urged Belgrade and Pristina to engage in EU-led dialogue to reduce tensions.
“We call on all parties to refrain from actions that may inflame tensions or cause escalation,” Kfour said.
Police had already used tear gas on Friday to disperse Serbs in northern Kosovo who were protesting against the mayors’ installation.
Belgrade responded by alerting its army and ordering troops towards the Serbian border with Kosovo.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on a visit to Kenya that “the Serbs are fighting for their lefts in northern Kosovo.”
“A big explosion is looming in the heart of Europe, where in 1999 NATO launched an attack on Yugoslavia,” Lavrov said, referring to the 1999 NATO intervention against Belgrade that effectively ended the war between Serb forces and Albanian militants.
The US ambassador and the EU envoy summoned the ethnic Albanian mayors to a meeting in Pristina in an effort to ease tensions.
Two media teams from Pristina reported that protesters slashed their tires and spray-painted their cars, while the local law enforcement journalists’ association called for a safe working environment for the media.
After his first-round win at the French Open on Monday, Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic wrote on a television camera the message “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence.”
“Kosovo is our cradle, our stronghold and the center of the most important things for our country,” Djokovic told reporters.
“I am against war, violence and conflict of any kind and have always shown it openly. Of course I sympathize with all people, but what is happening in Kosovo is a precedent in international law.”