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Kosovo: NATO-led peacekeepers put up barriers in Serb town

May 31, 2023

Soldiers secured Zvecan's town hall with metal fences following clashes with ethnic Serbs. Meanwhile, efforts to defuse the crisis intensify as German and French leaders plan to meet top officials from Serbia and Kosovo.

KFOR soldier putting up barbed wire near town hall in Zvecan, Kosovo
NATO-led peacekeepers in the northern Kosovo settlement of Zvecan put up barbed wire barriers in front of the town hallImage: Bojan Slavkovic/AP/picture alliance

Troops from the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo (KFOR) on Wednesday put up barriers in the northern town of Zvecan following clashes with ethnic Serbs.

The soldiers secured the perimeter of the building with metal fences and barbed wire barriers.

30 soldiers from the force were wounded in the clashes on Monday, while 52 protesters were injured. Five Serbs were arrested for taking part in the skirmish.

The NATO military alliance decided to send 700 additional troops following the clashes. Serbia put the country on its highest state of alert and sent troops to the border with Kosovo.

A correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that Serb protesters on Wednesday were holding a large Serbian flag that stretched over 200 meters (660 feet) from the town hall to the center of Zvecan.

Three Kosovo special police vehicles remain parked outside of the city hall.

Protesters carry Serbian flag in Zvecan
Serb protesters brought a 200-meter long flag to Wednesday demonstrationsImage: Bojan Slavkovic/AP/picture alliance

What were the clashes in northern Kosovo about?

The clashes broke out on Monday after hundreds of Serbs began gathering in front of Zvecan's city hall in repeated attempts to take over municipal offices.

The protesters objected to the assumption of office by ethnic Albanian mayors after local elections that were boycotted by most local Serbs. The elections held in April had a turnout of less than 3.5% in northern Kosovo, which is predominantly populated by ethnic Serbs.

Many Serbs in the disputed territory are also demanding the withdrawal of Kosovo police from northern municipalities.

Albanian-majority Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, a move not recognized by Belgrade. Serbs form most of the population in four municipalities in Kosovo's north.

The many reasons behind the latest Kosovo flareup

US, EU officials criticize 'escalation'

Miroslav Lajcak, the EU's special representative for dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, cast doubt on the legitimacy of the ethnic Albanian takeover of northern local councils in comments to DW's Serbian-language service.

"These newly-elected mayors did fulfill legal criteria, but when we talk about legitimacy or representation, there is of course a big question mark here," the EU official told DW, pointing to the Serb boycott of local elections.

Lajcak said that the incident amounted to "unnecessary" and "illogical" escalation, adding that talks had already established a path towards the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

"We have an agreement, which was never the case before, so we really need to revert to the implementation of this agreement and normalization," he stressed.

"It is clear that this can only be resolved politically, and that means through existing dialogue," he said.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Prime Minister Albin Kurti's government of having "sharply and unnecessarily escalated tensions" by installing ethnic Albanian mayors in the Serb-majority districts.

Scholz and Macron will try to mediate

Meanwhile,  European politicians rushed to mediate with Belgrade and Pristina. The leaders of France and Germany announced plans to meet top Serbia and Kosovo officials on Thursday.

German government spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit said Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron planned to meet with the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo on the sidelines of the European Political Community meeting in Chisinau, Moldova.

Working to avert any escalation, European Union officials met on Wednesday with Kosovo's Prime Minister Albin Kurti on the sidelines of a conference in Bratislava, Slovakia.

"The current situation is dangerous and unsustainable," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. "We need urgent de-escalation."

However, Kurti flatly rejected Serb demands but left the door open for fresh local elections. "As long as there is a violent mob outside the municipal buildings, we must have our special units," he said.

"If there would have been peaceful protests asking for early election, that would attract my attention and perhaps I would consider that request," Kurti said.

sdi, dh/msh (AP, AFP)