Nato deploys extra troops to Kosovo after violent clashes
Tuesday, 30 May, 2023, 19:24
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Nato will deploy additional forces to Kosovo in response to violent clashes that injured dozens of Serb protesters and international peacekeepers, sparking fears of a wider conflict in the Balkans nation.
The US-led military alliance said it had decided to send Operational Reserve Forces into Kosovo and instruct an additional battalion of troops to be ready to deploy in seven days if necessary.
The street violence since Monday, in which three Nato troops were shot and 27 more were injured after being hit by projectiles and improvised explosive devices, is the worst to hit Kosovo in years, and threatens to derail an EU-brokered deal intended to normalise relations between Kosovo and Serbia.
The additional deployment of Nato forces was a “prudent measure . . . to maintain security” in Kosovo, said Stuart B. Munsch, commander of Nato’s Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, which is the command base for the peacekeeping mission known as KFOR.
The violence, which also injured more than 50 protesters, has laid bare the failure by the EU and US to find a solution to the crisis over Kosovo’s sovereignty that has resulted in regular border clashes despite repeated attempts at diplomacy by western powers.
Serbia refuses to recognise the sovereignty of its southern neighbour, which declared independence from Belgrade in 2008 in the aftermath of the Balkan wars, and ethnic Serbs living in the north of the country have resisted efforts by Pristina to force them to use Kosovo-issued documents.
“Violent acts against citizens, against media, against law enforcement and [Nato] troops are absolutely unacceptable and bring us to a very dangerous situation,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said on Tuesday.
Borrell, who had spoken with the Serbian and Kosovan leaders in the past 24 hours, said he “asked both parties to urgently take measures to de-escalate tensions immediately and unconditionally”.
EU member states were discussing “possible measures to be taken if the parties continue to resist proposed steps towards de-escalation”, Borrell added. “We cannot afford another conflict.”
The violence broke out on Monday as Serbian demonstrators tried to block newly elected Albanian mayors from taking office. The majority Serb population in northern Kosovo had largely boycotted the April election, which resulted in ethnic Albanians winning the poll.
Nineteen Hungarian and 11 Italian peacekeepers from KFOR were injured as they tried to defend city halls, KFOR said, adding that the three troops who were shot do not have “life-threatening” injuries.
“Both parties need to take full responsibility for what happened and prevent any further escalation, rather than hide behind false narratives,” Major General Angelo Michele Ristuccia, the commander of KFOR, said on Tuesday.
Kosovo police said protests were continuing near municipal facilities, with the situation “fragile but calm”. An ethnic Serbian official said special units could be withdrawn later on Tuesday from a municipal building in Zvečan, the site of some of the fiercest clashes.
Further stoking tensions was Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, who on Monday wrote a message on a camera after winning a French Open match: “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence.”
Observers warned that the violence could derail an agreement reached in March by Kosovo, Serbia and the international community at a summit in Ohrid, North Macedonia designed to ease tensions.
“The mess in the Balkans is already starting to play out,” said one senior EU diplomat in response to the clashes. “We need to be clear on what we can offer [in terms of engagement] and the timelines, in order to be credible.”
“The process is badly damaged,” said Edward P Joseph, a Balkans expert at Johns Hopkins University in the US. “I hope the Ohrid agreement is not dead but such irresponsible behaviour makes these agreements exceedingly difficult to implement.”
Kosovo’s president Vjosa Osmani claimed that Serbia was destabilising its southern neighbour.
“Serb illegal structures turned into criminal gangs have attacked Kosovo police, KFOR [peacekeeping] officers and journalists,” Osmani wrote on Twitter. He also alleged they were carrying out the orders of Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić, without substantiating the claim.
Kosovo’s prime minister Albin Kurti condemned “ultra-nationalistic graffiti on Nato vehicles”, referring to Serbs spray-painting the vehicles with the letter Z, a Russian marking used since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Kosovo Serbs deny ties to Russia but many harbour sympathies with Moscow, long a Slavic ally of Belgrade.
After a meeting with Kurti, US ambassador to Kosovo Jeffrey Hovenier said reported attacks on official property and journalists by ethnic Serbs were not an “appropriate response”.
Vučić, who has raised the Serbian army’s combat readiness to the highest level, made an overnight visit to troops close to the Kosovo border. He also held meetings with the ambassadors of Russia and China as well as those from the US, UK, France, Germany and Italy.
Vučić faces mounting pressure on his government at home amid massive protests after two mass shootings killed dozens of people, mainly children.
“[Kosovo] just complicates his situation,” said Milos Damnjanovic, an analyst with the BIRN consultancy in Belgrade. “He has too many crises to juggle. Escalation is only useful to Vučić if he comes out stronger but the situation in Kosovo is largely out of his control.”
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