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Deadly Kosovo clashes spark fear of escalation

September 29, 2023

After a brutal attack by heavily armed Serbs on Kosovar police officers, many people in northern Kosovo fear an escalation of violence. Some even worry it could spark a new war.

Kosovo police officers patrol a road to Banjska monastery
Kosovo police officers patrol a road to Banjska monasteryImage: Ognen Teofilovski/REUTERS

Two days after the bloodshed on September 24, the skies are grey over the northern Kosovan city of Mitrovica. The mountains are shrouded in heavy clouds, and drizzly rainfall has turned the roads slippery.

The weather matches the somber mood of a tall 24-year-old Kosovo-Serb rushing to work. He won't tell DW his name but confides that the weekend violence left him with "stomach pains, for two days now," adding, "They get worse when I think about the bloodshed."

He won't reveal his occupation or anything else that could let anyone discover his identity. He sounds depressed and fearful. 

Like much of northern Kosovo, ethnic Serbs almost exclusively populate the northern part of Mitrovica, located about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) from the Serbian border. Most residential homes in this area are grey, though red, blue and white Serbian flags fly everywhere. A graffiti adorns one of the houses, stating that Kosovo belongs to Serbia and Crimea to Russia.

A grafitti in north Mitrovica states: 'Kosovo belongs to Serbia, Crimea to Russia'
A grafitti in north Mitrovica states: "Kosovo belongs to Serbia, Crimea to Russia"Image: Keno Verseck/DW

Local merchants sell fruit, vegetables and cheap Chinese goods, such as clothing and electronics, at their stalls. Scores of broken cars line the streets. Nobody has bothered removing them for years.

What happened in northern Kosovo?

In the early hours of Sunday, September 24, Kosovo experienced the worst outbreak of violence since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The incident occurred in Banjska, a village 15 kilometers northwest of Mitrovica.

Kosovar police officers were ambushed when they inspected two trucks without number plates blocking a road. One officer was killed.

Weapons and ammunition seized by Kosovo police after the attack
Weapons and ammunition seized by Kosovo police after the attackImage: Office of the Kosovo police

When reinforcements arrived, about 30 heavily armed attackers occupied the Banjska monastery, holing themselves up there. In the ensuing firefight with Kosovar security forces, three attackers were killed while the others managed to escape.

Police officers later seized grenade launchers, bazookas, assault rifles, hand grenades, an armored vehicle and a jeep.

Electoral boycott and roadblocks

Since declaring independence from Serbia, Kosovo has seen many violent clashes between Orthodox Christian Serbs and Muslim Albanians. The Kosovo Force (KFOR), a NATO-led peacekeeping unit stationed in the country since the end of the Kosovo War in 1999, often intervened to restore order — for example, by protecting Serbian Orthodox monasteries.

Kosovo had not experienced a paramilitary-terrorist attack by a heavily armed group in years until last weekend.

After about a decade of a growing calm, tensions seem to be increasing once more for the past year.

Everything started with a dispute over Serbian license plates in Kosovo last year. It escalated to the point where Kosovo-Serb ministers left the Kosovo government, political representatives of the Serb minority withdrew from all Kosovo state institutions and all mayors of Serb-majority municipalities resigned.

When the Kosovar government held a local election, Srpska Lista, Kosovo's only Serb minority party, called an election boycott, organizing roadblocks and threatening voters and candidates.

Rumors and fear

In Zvecan, a municipality north of Mitrovica that encompasses the village and monastery of Banjska, a huge Christian cross stands in the middle of the main road, its horizontal crossbeam high enough even trucks can pass underneath. From here, an abandoned metallurgical plant with a large chimney is visible.

Many people here seem shaken by the weekend bloodshed, wondering if the incident could lead to worse clashes or even a new war.

"We, the people here, are very worried," says Sami Kurti, a local doctor who serves several communities in the area. "There were rumors and warnings that armed groups would come from Serbia and plan something large-scale. Unfortunately, it was not just rumors but is a reality."

Local doctor Sami Kurti says rumors of an attack were circulating
Local doctor Sami Kurti says rumors of an attack were circulatingImage: Vjosa Cerkini/DW

After the deadly weekend clashes, the route from Mitrovica toward the Banjska monastery is now patrolled by police and heavily armed soldiers. Military jeeps and armored cars drive back and forth. Checkpoints have been set up along the way.

Scared to speak out

"It's true that people are very afraid," says Zvecan mayor Illir Peci, but adds, "The police brought everything under control after the incident."

Peci is one of several Albanian mayors in northern Kosovo elected with only three to four percent of the vote after their Serb colleagues resigned, boycotting the election. He is anxious not to say anything potentially confrontational that could exacerbate the situation.

Zvecan mayor Illir Peci is seen behind a desk
Zvecan mayor Illir Peci carefully weighed his wordsImage: Vjosa Cerkini/DW

Many people in the area do not want to speak to journalists at all. This is probably also due to the influence of the Srpska Lista party, which dominates northern Kosovo and is clearly controlled by Belgrade.

Entrepreneur Milan Radojicic, who leads the party, has a firm grip on northern Kosovo. He is said to be involved in numerous criminal activities, including drug trafficking. Radojicic maintains a close relationship with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

Climate of fear

Activists and politicians who have made efforts to work with Kosovar authorities are intimidated or even murdered. In January 2018, for example, politician Oliver Ivanovic was killed. He had called for Kosovo Serbs to integrate into the Kosovar state.

Ivanovic's murder has not been solved, though Radojicic is thought to have played a role in masterminding his death.

A plaque commemorates Oliver Ivanovic
A plaque was installed to commemorate Oliver IvanovicImage: Keno Verseck/DW

Radojicic has also taken responsibility for the Banjska monastery attack. A drone video that Kosovo's interior ministry released this week previously suggested his involvement, purportedly showing Radojicic in the courtyard of a property north of Mitrovica on Sunday carrying an automatic rifle and talking on the phone while surrounded by heavily armed men. The video was taken shortly before the men fled to Serbia.

In this light, it is no wonder many people in northern Kosovo do not want to publicly comment on the situation, including the previously mentioned 24-year-old Kosovo Serb from northern Mitrovica. While reluctant to reveal any personal details, he did say that, on an interpersonal level, things had worked well in Kosovo in recent years.

"Small groups of people met, talked to each other, we even drank to fraternity," he says. "But now I don't know what will happen next."

This article was translated from German.

A young woman (Vjosa Cerkini) with long black hair
Vjosa Cerkini Reporter focusing on Kosovo and other Western Balkan countries