A standoff between gunmen and Kosovo authorities at a monastery near the border with Serbia ended after four people were killed, authorities in Pristina said, after a police operation to regain control of the area.
“We put this territory under control. It was done after several consecutive battles,” Xhelal Svecla, Kosovo’s minister of internal affairs, told reporters after the standoff was over.
The announcement follows a chaotic day that began when a police patrol was ambushed near the village of Banjska early Sunday leaving one Kosovo law enforcement officer dead and another wounded.
The gunmen fled to a nearby monastery where they barricaded themselves and traded gunfire with Kosovo police for hours, with at least three assailants shot dead.
The attack and subsequent fighting mark one of the gravest escalations in Kosovo in years, after months of mounting tensions and stalled talks between the country’s government and Serbia.
Earlier in the day Kosovo’s prime minister Albin Kurti said about 30 heavily armed gunmen were surrounded by authorities in the complex and called for their surrender.
Svecla said police had made several arrests during the clearance operation and seized a lot of weapons and equipment. However it remained unclear if all the gunmen had been apprehended during the sweep.
The Serbian Orthodox Church also confirmed that gunmen had stormed the monastery in Banjska, where pilgrims from the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad were staying. Pictures released by Kosovo authorities showed several heavily armed gunmen wearing uniforms, barricading themselves in at the monastery.
Police later said in a statement that at least three attackers had been killed and one arrested during the firefight. Another four civilian suspects carrying radio equipment and weapons were also arrested.
Kosovo police also confirmed that the Jarinje and Brnjak border crossings between Serbia and Kosovo had been closed after the incident.
Kurti’s comments at the press conference came hours after he called the ambush that killed one police officer and wounded another an act of terrorism and blamed the Serbian government.
“Organised crime with political, financial and logistical support from officials in Belgrade is attacking our country,” Kurti wrote on social media.
The Nato-led KFOR mission said its forces were present in the area and “standing ready to respond if required”.
According to Kosovan law, government authorities are not allowed to enter Orthodox properties, including churches and monasteries, without first receiving permission from the Serbian Orthodox church.
Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic later condemned the killing of the police officer, but remained firm in putting the blame on Kurti for persecuting Kosovo’s ethnic Serbs.
Kurti “provokes all the time, I’m sorry that some of the Serbs fell for these provocations. Kurti is the only culprit, the only person who wants conflict and war,” Vucic told media.
He denied that Belgrade had anything to do with the attack.
Asked how come the Serb gunmen were photographed wearing combat uniforms, Vucic said anyone could buy such uniforms in ordinary shops and that the ones seen did not belong to the Serbian military or police force.
Vucic also blasted the west and its “hypocrisy” on Kosovo.
“You can kill us all. Serbia will never recognise the independence of Kosovo, that monster creation that you made by bombing Serbia,” Vucic said.
The attack comes more than a week after talks between the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo centred on improving ties failed to make a breakthrough during EU-mediated negotiations in Brussels.
The EU has been trying for years to resolve the long-running dispute between the Balkan neighbours that has soured relations since their war more than two decades ago.
Brussels believed it had broken the impasse in March by hammering out a plan to normalise ties, but since then there has been minimal progress.
The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, condemned Sunday’s attack, calling the targeting of police “hideous”.
“The responsible perpetrators must face justice,” Borrell wrote on social media. His office later called it a “cowardly terrorist attack”.
Tensions in northern Kosovo have been smouldering for months, after the Pristina government’s decision to install ethnic Albanian mayors in four Serb-majority municipalities in May.
The move triggered one of the worst bouts of unrest in the north in years. Demonstrations followed, as well as the arrest of three Kosovan police officers by Serbia and a violent riot by Serbian protesters during which more than 30 Nato peacekeepers were injured.
Kosovo remains overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Albanians, but in the northern stretches of the territory near the border with Serbia, ethnic Serbs are the majority in several municipalities.
The tussle in the north is the latest in a long list of incidents to rock the area since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. That was nearly a decade after Nato forces helped push Serbian troops from the former province during a war that killed about 13,000 people.
Belgrade – along with its key allies China and Russia – has refused to recognise Kosovo’s independence, in effect preventing it from having a seat at the United Nations.
During an address to the UN general assembly last week, Vučić accused the west of hypocrisy. He said its recognition of Kosovo’s independence was based on the same justification as Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Source : The Guardian