Kosovo accuses Serbia of 'kidnapping' its border police officers

Kosovo Serbs block the street near the municipal building in the town of Zvecan, northern Kosovo, Monday, June 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Dejan Simicevic)

Tensions have spiked anew between Kosovo and Serbia, after Belgrade arrested three Kosovo police officers and Pristina, branding the move a kidnapping, banned Serbian vehicles from crossing the border.

Wednesday's flare-up between the two Balkan sides follows weeks of tensions, after rioting in northern Kosovo saw 30 NATO peacekeepers wounded in late May.

Kosovo said the police officers had been abducted, saying the men were from a border patrol unit that had gone missing after reporting an incursion of masked armed men near the northern municipality of Leposavic.

Kosovo's Prime Minister Albin Kurti blamed Serbia for kidnapping the group, saying the move was likely "revenge" for the arrest of an alleged Serb paramilitary leader in Kosovo on Tuesday.

"The entry of Serbian forces into the territory of Kosovo is aggression and an aim for escalation and destabilisation," Kurti said in a statement posted on social media.

"We demand the immediate release of the three kidnapped police officials," he said.

Serbia alleged the officers were armed with automatic weapons and in full military gear with GPS devices, maps and other equipment, when they were detained some six kilometres inside Serbian territory.

"This terrorist gang was arrested today at 12:38 pm deep in the territory of central Serbia in the area of the village of Gnjilica in the municipality of Raska," Petar Petkovic, the head of the Serbian government's office for Kosovo, told reporters.

A video published by Serbian police showed masked men hauling off a group of men in handcuffs.

Pristina immediately banned all vehicles with Serbian license plates from entering Kosovo territory, government spokesperson Perparim Kryeziu said.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic accused Kosovo's Kurti of "wanting to provoke a war" and vowed that Serbia will "give its all" to avoid conflict.

"We are at the crossroads – whether we will keep having peace or not ... I’m afraid we have crossed the rubicon and it will be very difficult to get back into normality," Vucic said during a televised interview.

Boycotted polls

Tensions have been soaring between the archrivals following Pristina's decision to install ethnic Albanian mayors in four Serb-majority municipalities.

The mayors were elected in polls held in April that were boycotted by ethnic Serb voters and had a miniscule turnout of less than 3.5 percent.

France, Germany and the United States urged both Pristina and Belgrade to dial down the tensions, while the US openly slammed Kosovo government's decision to install the mayors.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Wednesday evening urged Kurti to "adopt more resolute steps to de-escalate the situation".

"Failure to de-escalate will result in negative consequences," Borrell said in a letter shared by the EU spokesperson.

The episode was the latest in a long list of incidents to rock the area since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 — nearly a decade after NATO forces helped push Serbian forces out of the former province during a bloody war that killed around 13,000 people, most ethnic Albanians.

Belgrade, along with its key allies China and Russia, has refused to recognise Kosovo's independence, effectively preventing it from having a seat at the United Nations.

Kosovo is overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Albanians.

But in the northern stretches of the territory near the border with Serbia, ethnic Serbs remain the majority in several municipalities.


Source: TRT