Serbia's defence minister Miloš Vučević has called on the NATO-led Kosovo forces, or KFOR, to guarantee security inside Kosovo following clashes on Friday between police and ethnic Serbs that left more than a dozen injured on both sides. Serbia's border police have also been put on high alert.
"The army of Serbia is of course in contact with KFOR and we expect KFOR to be much more involved in the field, to guarantee security, freedom, human rights, to its citizens who live in the territory of the province, so that it is not divided whether they are Serbs or Albanians or some other nation,” Vučević said on Friday.
Vučević accused Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti of "leading us to the red lines for Serbia".
"Kurti will not stop and he will continue to carry out activities aimed at further aggravating the Serbian community," he added.
Ethnic tensions in northern Kosovo
Ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo, who are a majority in that part of the country, had tried to block recently-elected ethnic Albanian officials from entering municipal buildings earlier Friday. The April 23 snap election was largely boycotted by ethnic Serbs and only ethnic Albanian or other smaller minority representatives were elected in the mayoral posts and assemblies.
Kosovo police fired tear gas and several cars were set ablaze. Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd and let the new officials into the offices. Kosovo Serb hospital officials said about 10 protesters were injured. Police said five officers were injured by stun grenades and other objects thrown by protesters. A police car was burned.
In response to the clashes, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said he put the army on the “highest state of alert” and ordered an “urgent” movement of troops closer to the border. He also demanded that NATO-led troops stationed in Kosovo protect ethnic Serbs from the Kosovo police.
The United States condemned Kosovo's government for using police to forcibly enter municipal buildings.
“These actions have sharply and unnecessarily escalated tensions, undermining our efforts to help normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia and will have consequences for our bilateral relations with Kosovo,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday.
Vučić spoke at a rally Friday evening in Belgrade as tens of thousands of people turned out to support the government in the wake of two mass shootings earlier this month that killed 18 people and wounded 20 others, stunning the nation.
“We will preserve peace — but I am telling you that Serbia won’t sit idle the moment Serbs in northern Kosovo are attacked,” he told the crowd.
Belgrade threatens response
Vučić has previously warned that Belgrade would respond to violence against Serbs, and has stepped up combat readiness several times during moments of tension with Kosovo.
However, any attempt by Serbia to send its troops over the border would mean a clash with NATO troops stationed there.
Zdravko Ponos, a former Serbian army chief turned opposition politician, criticized Vučić's response as “inappropriate.”
“This is only sabre-rattling that serves as face-saving for Vučić,” Ponos told the N1 regional television network.
Kosovo police acknowledged their increased presence in the north “to assist mayors of the northern communes of Zvecan, Leposavic and Zubin Potok to exert their right of work."
New mayors in three northern communities were prevented from entering municipal buildings, with small groups of Serbs raising their hands at the entrances, apparently to show they were not there to take part in violence, according to Albanian news outlet indexonline.net, which also published photos.
In Zvecan, the news website Kosovo-online.com showed clashes with police in front of the municipal building, while in Leposavic the main square was blocked with cars and trucks.
Earlier, Serbs switched on loud sirens in the four communities, including in the main northern town of Mitrovica, police said, describing the sirens as a call to gather and a warning that security forces are in the area.
Tensions over local elections
Local elections were held in four Serb-dominated communes in northern Kosovo after Serb representatives left their posts last year. They had resigned in protest over the refusal by Kosovo authorities to allow the establishment of their association to coordinate work on education, health care, land planning and economic development at the local level.
A 2013 Pristina-Belgrade agreement on that plan to form the Serb association was later declared unconstitutional by Kosovo’s Constitutional Court, which ruled that it wasn’t inclusive of other ethnicities and could entail the use of executive powers to impose laws.
The two sides have tentatively agreed to back an EU plan on how to proceed, but tensions still simmer.
The US and the EU have stepped up efforts to help solve the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, fearing further instability in Europe as war rages in Ukraine. The EU has made it clear to both Serbia and Kosovo that they must normalize relations to advance in their intentions to join the bloc.
The conflict in Kosovo erupted in 1998 when separatist ethnic Albanians rebelled against Serbia’s rule, and Serbia responded with a brutal crackdown. About 13,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, died. NATO’s military intervention in 1999 eventually forced Serbia to pull out of the territory. Washington and most EU countries have recognized Kosovo as an independent state, but Serbia, Russia and China have not.