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Saturday 20 July 2019

Kosovo police expel Serb official amid surge in tensions

The incident triggered an angry reaction from Serbia and inflamed tensions between the two bitter Balkan foes.

Kosovo police escort Marko Djuric (Visar Kryeziu/AP)
Kosovo police escort Marko Djuric (Visar Kryeziu/AP)

By Sylejman Kllokoqi

Kosovan police have briefly detained and then expelled a senior Serb official in a divided northern town as officers also fired tear gas and stun grenades at Serb protesters.

The incident triggered an angry reaction from Serbia and inflamed tensions between the two bitter Balkan foes.

Video footage showed police in black uniforms with machine guns and body armour leading a handcuffed man from inside a building towards an armoured car.

Footgae also showed a conference room inside the building in the Serb-dominated northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica with chairs and tables upended.

Kosovo police in Mitrovica (Bojan Slavkovic/AP)

Marko Djuric, the chief Serb negotiator in European Union-led talks between Serbia and Kosovo, was detained for illegally entering Kosovo.

The move sparked protests by Kosovan Serbs and police responded by firing tear gas and stun grenades.

A doctor at a local hospital said 32 people were injured, including five seriously, though all were discharged later.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, speaking after an urgent session of the country’s top security body in Belgrade, denounced Kosovo as a “terrorist” and “bandit” state supported by Western powers, and accused Kosovo’s officials of “a brutal provocation”.

Police roadblocks in northern Kosovo (Bojan Slavkovic/AP)

In a strongly worded address aired live on Serbian state TV, Mr Vucic said Serbia will prosecute those who arrested Mr Djuric.

Mr Vucic said “we will not let this go unpunished”, but he stopped short of pulling out of EU talks on normalising ties with the former province whose 2008 split Belgrade does not recognise.

He said: “We will do everything we can to preserve peace but we will not allow anyone to jeopardise the security of our citizens,” adding that Mr Djuric’s arrest was a “brutal provocation, a senseless criminal act”. He described Kosovo officials as “a gang supported by the West”.

Mr Vucic said he would speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the incident. Russia, a traditional Serb ally, has supported the Serbian claim over its former province of Kosovo. Most Western states have recognised ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo.

The EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, called for restraint. She said she spoke with Mr Vucic and his Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci following the incident.

Friction between Serbia and Kosovo has increased recently as the EU presses for a compromise between the two foes on a number of issues, as their precondition for eventually entering the 28-nation bloc.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Belgrade does not recognise the split and is seeking to maintain influence in Kosovo’s north, where most of the country’s Serb minority is located.

Before the arrest, Kosovan police had sent reinforcements to stop four senior Serb government officials from visiting Kosovo’s north., but Mr Djuric and another Serb official arrived in the Serb part of Mitrovica later.

Serbia’s state Tanjug news agency said Serbia’s defence minister, the chief Serb negotiator, a senior aide of Mr Vucic and the country’s culture minister were banned from entering Kosovo.

Kosovo foreign minister Behgjet Pacolli had warned on his Facebook page that none of the senior Serb officials had permission to enter Kosovo.

“Whoever enters Kosovo illegally will get arrested!” he wrote.

It was not the first tense moment on Kosovo’s border with Serbia, which has been controlled by Nato-led troops since an intervention in 1999 to stop a bloody Serbian crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo.

In January 2017, a Serb promotional train ride, which would have been the first from Belgrade to Kosovo’s northern town of Mitrovica since the 1998-99 war, was turned back by Kosovo authorities.

PA Media

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