Tensions soar in Kosovo as Vucic vows to protect Serbs

Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic says troops ready to act as Kosovo police continue operation against suspected organised crime in the predominantly Serb north.

Serbia ordered its troops on full alert on Tuesday after police in neighbouring Kosovo mounted an anti-smuggling operation in a northern region of the country populated mainly by Serbs.

Belgrade saw the Kosovan police action as an attempt by Pristina authorities to take control of northern parts of Kosovo, which border Serbia.

Kosovan police said they had arrested dozens of officers, including ethnic Serbs, accused of smuggling goods into the country. One of those detained is a Russian national working for the UN in Kosovo. 

Police had faced “armed resistance” and one policeman was wounded, they said. Serbian state RTS TV reported two Serbs were wounded during the police action.

Kosovo President, Hashim Thaci, said the operation is against organised crime and smuggling.

“Law enforcement institutions need maximal support from the whole of society in the uncompromised fight against organised crime, smuggling, and corruption, in all territory of the Republic of Kosovo,” said Thaci.

Ready to react

At an urgent address to the parliament, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic said Belgrade will “seek to preserve peace and stability” but at the same time remained ready to react.

“As the supreme commander, I have placed our army units in full combat readiness, if there is any serious endangering of order and people in northern Kosovo, they will protect our people,” he told deputies.

Emergency sirens sounded in the Serb part of Mitrovica and people gathered in the town’s main square but no incidents occurred, witnesses said.

UN demands release of staff

The UN mission in Kosovo demanded the immediate release of two staff members who were injured and detained in police raids in the north, expressing “great concern” over the situation.

The pair, one of whom Moscow says is a Russian national, were detained during a police sweep early Tuesday targeting organised crime groups in northern Kosovo.

The UN staff members were then “subsequently transferred to hospital for treatment of injuries,” the UN mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, said in a statement on its website.

The head of the mission, Zahir Tanin, warned that “any harm to United Nations staff will be met with the highest degree of diplomatic and international legal responses.”

Moscow denounced the “outrageous incident” and demanded the immediate release of the Russian UNMIK staffer, saying he enjoyed diplomatic immunity.

Thaci told reporters the Russian national was “camouflaged under the guise of a diplomat” and detained for trying to “prevent the Kosovo police” from carrying out their duties.

Since breaking away from Serbia in a 1998-99 war, Kosovo authorities have struggled to exercise clout in the northern ethnic Serb communities, who remain loyal to Belgrade, which rejects Kosovo’s independence.

Russia is a key ally of Belgrade and also denies the statehood of Kosovo.

A day earlier, Vucic had said Serbia had lost control over Kosovo and called for a compromise solution between Belgrade and Pristina to end the frozen conflict.

Majority-Albanian Kosovo declared independence in 2008, almost a decade after NATO air strikes wrested control of the territory away from Belgrade to end a counter-insurgency campaign by Serbian security forces.

But Serbia, which under its constitution considers Kosovo an integral part of its territory, has been blocking Kosovo from membership of international institutions including Interpol and UNESCO. 

It also still provides financial aid to Serbs in Kosovo.

‘Respect the law’

Kosovo police said their investigation had been launched months ago.

They declined to give the number of people arrested but said the operation was going on throughout the country not only in the north. 

Albanians, Serbs, Bosniaks were among those detained.

Smuggling is rampant in the area and it further increased since Kosovo last November introduced 100 percent tariffs on goods from Serbia.

“I confirm that the operation is about law enforcement and nothing else. I call Serbs in the north to stay calm and respect the law,” Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said.

The NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo (KFOR) said it was ready to intervene if necessary and urged all parties to remain calm.

“Because of the political sensitivity of the moment … KFOR invites all the parties to deal with the disputes peacefully and responsibly, without any use of force or violence,” NATO said.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies

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