Kosovar police operation concerns UN, angers Serbia
Kosovar officials insist it was an organized crime operation and Serbs in Mitrovica weren't targeted
Serbia put its troops on full alert Tuesday after heavily armed police in northern Kosovo entered Serb-populated Mitrovica, firing tear gas and arresting nearly two dozen people.
It was the latest flare-up in long-simmering tensions between Serbia and its former province, which declared independence from Belgrade in 2008 after a 1998-99 war that ended only with NATO intervention. Ninety per cent of the population in northern Kosovo are Serbs who don't want to be part of independent Kosovo. Action by Kosovo special police there is rare and always triggers Serb anger.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Kosovo police arrested 23 Serbs and Bosnians after "bursting" into the northern area with armoured vehicles. He said he had seen video of the police firing "live ammunition" over the heads of unarmed Serbs, and the operation was designed to intimidate minority Serbs in Kosovo, whose population is mostly ethnic Albanians.
Vucic said he has ordered soldiers near the border to be on "combat alert" to protect Serbs if tensions escalate.
"Serbia will try to preserve peace and stability, but will be fully ready to protect our people at the shortest notice," Vucic told parliament.
Serbian state TV reported movements of Serb troops stationed near the border. Any Serbian armed incursion into Kosovo would mean a direct clash with NATO-led peacekeepers there.
Kosovo police say five police officers and six civilians were injured during the operation.
The United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) said two of its staff members were injured and required hospitalization as a result of the police operation.
UN appeals for calm, NATO monitoring situation
UNMIK appealed for calm on all sides.
"I urge all parties to abide by the principles of rule of law and dignity for all to life and liberty, and to help restore calm and security in the area," said Zahir Tanin, UNMIK ambassador.
UNMIK was deployed in Kosovo in 1999 after NATO intervened to stop a bloody Serb crackdown on Kosovo Albanian separatists. It has a reduced mission after Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence.
Hours later, the UN said a Russian staff member who was detained had been released from the hospital, and the organization called for the immediate release of a second staff member who is a Kosovar citizen.
STATEMENT FROM UNMIK SRSG: <br>“I urge all parties to abide by the principles of rule of law and dignity for all to life and liberty, and to help to restore calm and security in the area.”<br> <a href="https://t.co/DHA5jHVnGA">https://t.co/DHA5jHVnGA</a>—@UNMIKosovo
Russia's Foreign Ministry condemned Kosovo for stoking tensions with neighbouring Serbia.
Russia, along with China, is the most prominent nation to not recognize Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence, though most other countries do.
Kosovo's prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, confirmed on Twitter that police had carried out "an anti-smuggling and organized crime operation." President Hashim Thaci called on the ethnic Serb minority to remain calm and support the police.
"Those involved in illegal activities will go behind bars," he wrote on his Facebook page, insisting the police operation was not targeting people from specific ethnicities.
The spokesperson for the NATO peacekeeping mission, Col. Vincenzo Grasso, said the force is monitoring the situation and co-ordinating with authorities.
The two sides had been participating in an EU-facilitated dialogue, but Serbia walked away in November after Kosovo slapped a 100 per cent tax on Bosnian and Serbian imports, saying it will be lifted only when the two countries recognize Kosovo's sovereignty.
- An earlier version of the article stated that "Russia, along with China and a handful of other nations, does not recognize Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence, though most other countries do." In fact, dozens of UN member countries have not recognized the country's independence, though a significant majority of EU and NATO member states do recognize Kosovo's independence.May 29, 2019 11:54 AM ET
With files from CBC News