By Fatmir Aliu and Maryrose Fison
Men wearing Russian military uniforms have been spotted in the Serb-dominanted north of Mitrovica, though Kosovo Police say they were civilians.
A group of about 10 Russians dressed in military uniforms visited Serbs manning a barricade on the main bridge in the north of the divided town of Mitrovica on Monday.
Accompanied by a Russian Orthodox Priest, the uniformed men bore Russian flags and were greeted as heroes by Kosovo Serbs on the barricade.
“You are our only hope! You are our only saviours! God bless you for coming here, since no one else cares about us,” an old woman told a uniformed man.
Kosovo Police spokesperson Besim Hoti told Balkan Insight that the uniformed men were not part of the regular Russian military.
“They came into Kosovo as civilians. The fact that these group of 10 Russians were spotted with military uniforms doesn’t mean they were soldiers,” he said.
“They came to Kosovo to bring an icon for the Orthodox church in the north of Mitrovica,” Hoti added.
NATO peacekeepers in KFOR and EU police in EULEX were not available for comment.
A hundred metres away, some ten KFOR peacekeepers observed the crowd that had gathered at the barricade.
At the barricade, using a translator, the Russians told local Kosovo Serbs that “they had come with a message from the Russian Prime Minister [Vladimir Putin] to show support for the Serbian population living in the north [of Kosovo]”.
“They were not soldiers, because if they were KFOR wouldn’t allow them to enter Kosovo,” Besim Hoti told Balkan Insight.
The group stayed for about an hour at the barricade, which stands on the bridge over the river Ibar dividing the town into the southern predominantly Albanian and northern, mainly Serbian sectors.
After completing a religious ceremony, the Russians staged a parade in the streets in the north of Mitrovica.
Kosovo police said the Russians were later spotted on barricades in Zupce and Jagnjenica, near Zubin Potok.
Meanwhile, KFOR told Balkan Insight that a barricade positioned on the road leading to the Brnjak customs checkpoint had been removed over the weekend and a second barricade, erected approximately 600 metres away from the main road to Brnjak had been dismantled yesterday afternoon by the local population.
Serbs have been manning more than a dozen barricades in northern Kosovo for months in protest against the deployment of Kosovo government customs officials on the Kosovo-Serbia border.
Serbs in northern Kosovo do not recognise Kosovo’s independence, proclaimed in 2008.