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Kosovo monastery siege ends with 4 dead

Published September 24, 2023last updated September 24, 2023

Masked gunmen opened fire at a Kosovo police patrol, with Pristina blaming "Serbia's criminal groups" for the ambush. They then stormed an Orthodox monastery near the border with Serbia.

The armed group inside the monastery of Banska in the north of Kosovo
Police have surrounded a group of gunmen inside an Orthodox monastery near the village of BanjskaImage: Office of the Kosovo Government

A standoff between gunmen and Kosovo police at a monastery near the Serbian border has ended, Kosovo authorities said Sunday night.

"We put this territory under control. It was done after several consecutive battles," Xhelal Svecla, Kosovo's minister of internal affairs, told reporters.

The violence started in the early hours of Sunday, when a Kosovo police patrol was ambushed by an armed group in the Serb-populated north. At least one police officer was killed and another wounded in the incident, which Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti described as a terrorist act.

The attackers then fled to a nearby monastery, where they were locked in gun battles with police for several hours. At least three assailants were shot dead. 

Earlier, Prime Minister Kurti had told a press conference that "at least 30" professional gunmen were "surrounded by our police forces" in and around the Orthodox monastery near the village of Banjska.

Kurti linked the attackers to Serbia, which denies Kosovo's independence and is maintaining links with ethnic Serbs in the area.

"Organized crime, which is politically, financially and logistically supported from Belgrade, is attacking our state," Kurti wrote on his Facebook page. "The attackers are professionals wearing masks and heavily armed."

What do we know about the ambush?

The early morning attack took place in Banjska, near the Serb town of Leposavic in northern Kosovo. According to police, patrol officers noticed that a bridge leading up to a local village was blocked by two trucks with no license plates.

After three patrols moved to the trucks to investigate, the attackers opened fire at them from multiple positions and also used grenades.

Eyewitnesses described the events as a "small war," with gunfire continuing for several hours. 

"A string of gunshots, then silence, then gunshots, blasts," one of the locals told the local KoSSev news outlet.

Two trucks blocking a road
Police began investigating after discovering two trucks blocking a bridgeImage: Office of the Kosovo Government

What happened at the monastery?

Later Sunday, the monastery issued a statement saying that a group of armed, masked individuals had used an armored car to crash through the gates of the property.

The intruders moved across the grounds, and gunshots were occasionally fired, the statement said. The monastery did not say if the cars belonged to the police or the gunmen. They also said monastery residents and pilgrims locked themselves inside for safety.

In the statement, the monastery officials also condemned the earlier attack on the Kosovo police.

Kosovo police official Veton Elshan told the AFP news agency by phone that police officers could see "armed people in uniforms ... they are firing on us and we are firing back." 

Police later said in a statement that at least three attackers had been killed and one arrested. Another four civilian suspects carrying radio equipment and weapons were also arrested.

The incident is likely to inflame ethnic tensions between predominantly Orthodox Serbs and predominantly Muslim Albanians in Kosovo.

Kosovo's police officers stand guard at the entrance of the village of Banjska
Kosovo's police officers were on patrol after the attack near the Serb-majority town of LeposavicImage: Str/AFP/Getty Images

US envoy condemns 'orchestrated' attacks

Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani blamed "Serbian criminal groups" for the attack and said Kosovo was united "against Serbia's destabilizing attempts."

Most of Kosovo's territory is populated by ethnic Albanians. The Balkan nation was once a part of Serbia, but the Serb forces were driven out in 1999 following an uprising by Albanian guerrilla fighters and the subsequent NATO bombing. The remaining Serb population is now concentrated in northern Kosovo, near the Serbian border.

There was no immediate official response from Belgrade, although Serbian Parliamentary Speaker Vladimir Orlic commented to the Serbian national broadcaster RTS that Kurti had "rushed" into blaming Serbs rather than waiting for more information. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was expected to address the media later Sunday.

Meanwhile, US Ambassador in Pristina Jeff Hovenier decried the "orchestrated, violent attacks" on the police and called on perpetrators to "immediately cease" their actions.

The EU's top diplomat Josep Borrell also called for perpetrators to face justice.

"I condemn in the strongest possible terms the hideous attack by an armed gang against Kosovo police officers in Banjska/Banjske in the north of Kosovo," he said.

Ethnic tensions have flared up multiple times in recent years, including protests sparked by a disputed election in May which left dozens of international peacekeepers injured. In June, Serbia arrested three Kosovo police officers, claiming they were deep inside Serbia's territory. Kosovo officials said the men were kidnapped from within Kosovo. The policemen were eventually released.

dj/jcg (AP, Reuters)