Kosovo’s relations with its key US ally deteriorated sharply as Washington said it will impose penalties until Pristina takes measures to de-escalate the tense situation that led to violent unrest in the Serb-majority north of the country.
By Jeta Xharra, Xhorxhina Bami and Sasa Dragojlo
The US ambassador to Pristina, Jeffrey Hovenier, said on Tuesday that Washington will apply sanctions after the previous day’s unrest in northern Kosovo, which saw 30 NATO troops from the KFOR peacekeeping mission injured in violent clashes with protesting Serbs.
Hovenier told a press conference that the first sanction was the cancellation of Kosovo’s participation in the US-led Defender Europe 2023 military exercise.
He added that the US will also “cease all efforts to assist Kosovo in gaining recognition from states that have not recognised Kosovo and in the process of integration into international organisations”.
He said that the unrest has set back efforts to bring about a normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.
On Monday, Kosovo Serbs protested in front of municipal buildings in the Serb-dominated northern Kosovo municipalities of Zvecan, Zubin Potok and Leposavic against newly-elected ethnic Albanian mayors who were installed on Friday under Kosovo police guard.
Clashes erupted as protesters in Zvecan attacked KFOR soldiers with teargas, explosives, rocks and police batons.
Hovenier claimed that “the [Kosovo police] operation that took place on Friday to obtain access to municipal buildings through forceful means was not coordinated with US”.
“The crisis that has been created has been totally unnecessary, the mayors have had the opportunity to work from other administrative buildings located in these municipalities, so it was not necessary to insist on entering these buildings,” the US ambassador said.
Hovenier explained that he had asked Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti to urgently withdraw the Kosovo Police from the three contested municipal buildings in Zubin Potok, Leposavic and Zvecan.
NATO to boost troop presence
The NATO said on Tuesday that it is deploying additional troops to bolster its peacekeeping mission KFOR after 30 of its soldiers were injured in the clashes with Serb protesters in Zvecan.
“In response to recent unrest and the injury of 30 members of NATO’s Kosovo Force, NATO has directed the deployment of the Operational Reserve Forces (ORF) for the Western Balkans,” the Western military alliance said in a statement.
It added that “an additional multi-national battalion of reserve forces” will be made ready to reinforce KFOR within a seven-day period “if necessary”.
Serbian President Alexandar Vucic on Tuesday met representatives of the so-called Quint countries (the US, France, Germany, Italy and the UK) and Russia’s ambassador Alexandar Bocan-Harchenko.
Vucic said he wanted to ensure that Serbs are “safe” in northern Kosovo.
“There is one such small condition for that, for which I can’t believe that the people from Quint, the most powerful Western countries, cannot fulfill it – and that is the withdrawal of [Kosovo] police forces from the north of Kosovo and the second is the removal of the fake mayors who do not really represent anyone,” Vucic said.
“As far as we are concerned, we will continue to advocate for peace and to preserve that peace both in relation to KFOR and in relation to everyone else,” he added.
Meanwhile EU High Representative Josep Borrell said that he is “working on organising an urgent high-level dialogue meeting” between Serbia and Kosovo.
KFOR announced on Tuesday that 11 troops from its Italian contingent and 19 Hungarians had been injured during the unrest in Zvecan. Three Hungarian soldiers had firearm wounds. At least 50 protesters were also injured.
Kosovo Police announced that five people have been arrested for attacks on KFOR.
Journalists targeted for attack again
Attacks on journalists continued during renewed protests by Serbs in northern Kosovo on Tuesday. The Association of Journalists of Kosovo said registered around 18 attacks on media outlets’ crews on Friday, Monday and Tuesday.
Cars belonging to Albanian language media outlets Koha and T7 were damaged on Tuesday in Zvecan. The letter ‘Z’, symbolising support for Russia’s war against Ukraine, was sprayed on the vehicles. Gunshot damage was found on a car belonging to online media Periskopi in Zvecan.
In Leposavic, journalists including BIRN’s crew were pushed, insulted and had eggs thrown at them by protesters, some of them wearing masks.
Journalists from neighbouring Albania were also attacked on Tuesday in Leposavic. Protesters threw rocks at cars carrying crews from A2 CNN and Panorama.
There were further attacks on journalists in North Mitrovica, where there are no protests. A crew from Albanian-language broadcaster RTV21 was physically assaulted and their camera taken.