PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) – Kosovo’s prime minister on Sunday said one police officer was killed and another wounded in an attack he blamed on support from neighboring Serbia, increasing tensions between the two former war foes at a delicate moment in their European Union-facilitated dialogue to normalize ties.
Prime Minister Albin Kurti said “masked professionals armed with heavy weapons” opened fire on a police patrol in the village of Banjska, in Leposavic municipality, 55 kilometers (35 miles) north of the capital Pristina at 3 a.m. (01:00 GMT).
Kosovo police said two trucks without license plates blocked a bridge at the entrance to the village. Three police units were sent to unblock it but came under fire from different positions with various weapons, including hand grenades and bombs.
Police managed to push back the attack and take two injured police officers to the hospital in southern Mitrovica.
One of them was dead on arrival, doctors said. The condition of the other is not life-threatening.
In a statement, the Kosovo Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church – which has several monasteries in the former Serbian province – said a group of masked men in an armored vehicle stormed the Banjska Monastery in the same village, breaking down the locked gate.
A group of pilgrims from the city of Novi Sad, in northern Serbia, is currently visiting the monastery, along with an abbot, the Rev. Danilo.
For safety, they locked themselves inside and the monastery’s temple is also locked down.
“Armed, masked men move around the courtyard and occasional gunshots are heard,” the diocese said.
Serbian Troops Put on Highest Alert After Ethnic Clashes in Kosovohttps://t.co/xoAnOZw3sk
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Serbia and its former province, Kosovo, have been at odds for decades. Their 1998-99 war left more than 10,000 people dead, mostly Kosovo Albanians. Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008 but Belgrade has refused to recognize the move.
Speaking after a meeting of the country’s Security Council Sunday, Kurti said it was a “sad day” for Kosovo and named the dead police officer as Afrim Bunjaku.
The prime minister displayed a set of photos which showed a number of four-wheel drive vehicles without license plates and an armored personnel carrier “which does not belong to the Kosovo police,” near the Orthodox monastery in Banjska.
There was ongoing gunfire from what he described as a group of at least 30 military professionals, masked and heavily armed.
“It is clear that these uniformed persons, at least 30, are an organized professional unit who have come to fight in Kosovo,” he said, calling on them to hand themselves over to the Kosovar authorities.
Most of Kosovo’s ethnic Serb minority lives in four municipalities around Mitrovica, in the north.
Reports in Kosovo Serb media said residents of Banjska were woken by shootings and explosions in the night.
“It was a real little war: first some gunfire, then silence, shootings, detonations,” Serbian Kossev news agency quoted an unidentified resident as saying.
Serbian media said both local roads and crossings with Serbia were blocked.
“Organized crime, which is politically, financially and logistically supported from Belgrade, is attacking our state,” Kurti wrote on his Facebook page.
Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani, who is in New York at the United Nations General Assembly, denounced the killing.
“Such attacks testify once again to the destabilizing power of the criminal bands organized from Serbia which for a long time … are destabilizing Kosovo and the region,” she said.
EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned “the hideous attack by an armed gang against Kosovo Police officers” and asked that “all facts about the attack need to be established. The responsible perpetrators must face justice.”
He added that “these attacks must stop immediately,” adding that the EU’s rule of law mission, or EULEX, as second security responder, is on the ground and in close contact with the authorities and KFOR.
Miroslav Lajcak, EU’s envoy for the talks, also condemned the “horrific attack” and repeated the call “to return to dialogue immediately”
In a statement, the U.S. ambassador in Pristina “strongly” condemned the orchestrated, violent attacks on the Kosovo Police this morning,” adding that “the Kosovo Police has full and legitimate responsibility for enforcing the rule of law according to the constitution and laws of Kosovo.”
Serbia’s parliamentary speaker Vladimir Orlic said Kurti “was quick to blame the Serbs,” adding that Kurti was the one who wanted an “escalation.”
“He (Kurti) said it was some kind of organized action by professionals,” Orlic told local Prva television station. “They must have been identified and he knows who they are and what they are, and everything is clear.”
At Least 30 Troops Injured: Kosovo Serbs Attack NATO Soldiers, Spray-Paint Russian ‘Z’ Symbol on Vehicles https://t.co/AIYzZS5wqW
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In Belgrade, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic is expected to address the public later on Sunday to “expose Kurti’s lies,” according to pro-government media.
Earlier this month, an EU-facilitated dialogue meeting in Brussels between Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic ended in acrimony. Washington has fully supported the negotiations and the stance of the EU.
In February, the EU put forward a 10-point plan to end months of political crises. Kurti and Vucic gave their approval at the time, but with some reservations that have still not been resolved.
The EU warned both countries that the commitments that Serbia and Kosovo made in February “are binding on them and play a role in the European path of the parties,” which refers to their chances of joining the 27-nation bloc.
In May tensions in northern Kosovo left 93 peacekeepers hurt in riots.
A particular flashpoint has been the creation of the Association of the Serb-Majority Municipalities, or ASM, to coordinate the work of Serb-dominated municipalities on matters such as education, health and economic development.
Kosovo considers the ASM as an effort by Belgrade to create a Serb mini-state with wide autonomy, similar to Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The ASM’s establishment was first agreed in Brussels in 2013, and approved in the Kosovo parliament. But Kosovo’s Constitutional Court later deemed it unconstitutional, because it wasn’t inclusive of other ethnicities and could entail executive powers.
In protest, last year Serb lawmakers, prosecutors and police officers walked off the job. Their posts have still not been filled. A few Serb police officers were recruited but received threats telling them to resign.
Northern Kosovo’s rule of law has been run by international police officers from the EU mission, EULEX, and a limited number of Kosovo police, whose presence has been vehemently protested by Belgrade.
The border is guarded by peacekeepers from the 4,000-strong NATO-led KFOR force, which has been in Kosovo since 1999.