Violence in Kosovo has prompted fears of a renewed conflict in the Balkans, as Nato sends in peace-keeping reinforcements.
Hundreds of ethnic Serbs have gathered in Zvecan, in northern Kosovo, after clashes that injured 30 soldiers from a Nato-led peacekeeping force and more than 50 Serbs in the past few days.
Serbs are a minority in Kosovo but form the majority in parts of the country’s north bordering Serbia. Many reject the Albanian-majority territory’s 2008 claim of independence from the larger neighbour, which came after Nato’s bombing campaign that drove Serbian forces – responsible for years of brutality against ethnic Albanians – from Kosovo.
The Serbs are currently demanding that ethnic Albanian officials they’ve dubbed “fake” mayors, after controversial elections, which Serbs boycotted, be removed from office.
On Monday, ethnic Serbs tried to storm municipal offices and fought with both Kosovo police and Nato peacekeepers.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Serbs’ attack on soldiers from the multinational force known as KFor was “unacceptable”.
Nato says it will send another 700 troops to northern Kosovo to help the existing 3,800 KFor soldiers there quell the violence.
Nato defended Kosovo from Serbian brutality in the Balkan Wars and allowed it to gain independence – which is not recognised by Russia or China.
Beijing, ever ready to signal its differences with Nato, has expressed its support for Serbia’s efforts to “safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity” following the violence between ethnic Serbs and Nato peacekeepers. Serbia has put the country’s military on its highest state of alert and sent more troops to the border with Kosovo.
However, Western officials have not been shy in accusing Kosovan leaders of provoking ethnic Serbs in this week’s unrest.
The US has even thrown Kosovo out of an international military exercise as it angrily blames the tiny Balkan state for causing the clashes.
Jeffrey Hovenier, the US ambassador to Pristina, said Kosovo was being expelled from Defender 23, an exercise involving more than 20 countries.
Hovenier has even threatened to suspend diplomatic support for Kosovo. “We have asked prime minister [Albin] Kurti very directly to take immediate steps to achieve de-escalation in the north,” he said. “He has not been responsive to those requests.”
French President Emmanuel Macron agreed that it has been a mistake for allowing the elections to go ahead.
He will join German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in a peace mission when the pair meet leaders of Serbia and Kosovo on Thursday.
Speaking at an international security forum in Bratislava, Slovakia, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said Kosovo police would not accept the Serbs’ demands for a complete withdrawal, but hinted at the possibility of early local elections, if the violence ended.
“If there would have been peaceful protests asking for early elections, that would attract my attention and perhaps I would consider that request,” he said.
Events in Kosovo come as two Serbian war criminals have their jail terms lengthened in the Hague, in a reminder of Serbia’s leading role in the atrocities committed in the 90s after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
UN appeals judges significantly expanded the convictions of two allies of late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, holding them responsible for training death squads in Bosnia and in one town in Croatia in a strategy to drive out non-Serbs from the areas during the Balkan wars.
The appeals chamber at the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals overturned their acquittals of involvement plotting the crimes and raised the sentences of Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic from 12 to 15 years.
The appeals ruling brings to an end the longest-running war crimes prosecution dating back to the Balkan wars of the early 90s.
Jelena Sesar, Amnesty International’s Europe Researcher, hailed the courtroom verdict as “historic”.
“It leaves no doubt about the involvement of Serbia’s police and security services in the wartime atrocities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is something that Serbia’s authorities continue to deny to this day,” she said.
But she added: “it is important to remember that thousands of cases of war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina remain unresolved and many of those suspected of criminal responsibility for atrocities continue to walk free.”