ZVECAN, Kosovo (AP) — International efforts to defuse a crisis in Kosovo intensified Wednesday as ethnic Serbs held more protests in a northern town where clashes with NATO-led peacekeepers earlier this week left dozens injured and sparked fears of renewed conflict in the troubled region.
Hundreds of Serbs repeated at a rally that they want the Kosovo special police and ethnic Albanian officials they call “fake” mayors to withdraw from northern Kosovo where they are a majority. The crowd then spread a huge Serbian flag.
Working to avert any escalation, European Union officials met with Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti on the sidelines of a conference in Bratislava, Slovakia, while the leaders of France and Germany announced plans to meet top Serbia and Kosovo officials on Thursday at a summit in Moldova.
“The current situation is dangerous and unsustainable,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. “We need urgent de-escalation.”
Speaking in Slovakia, Kurti flatly rejected Serb demands but left the door open for fresh local elections.
“As long as there is a violent mob outside the municipal buildings, we must have our special units,” he said. “If there would have been peaceful protests asking for early election, that would attract my attention and perhaps I would consider that request.”
Kurti also suggested that Russia may have a hand in the latest flareup, pointing to protesters who “do graffiti with letter Z, showing admiration for despotic president Putin and for the Russian military aggression and invasion in Ukraine.” Russia is a close Serbian ally although Belgrade populist leaders claim to be seeking European Union membership.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that Moscow is monitoring the situation in Kosovo and spoke in support of the Serbs.
“We are following that, we are unconditionally supporting Serbia, supporting the Serbs,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters. “We believe that all legitimate rights and interests of Kosovo Serbs must be observed and ensured.”
Wednesday’s protest outside the city hall in Zvecan, 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of the capital, Pristina, ended peacefully. On Monday, ethnic Serbs tried to storm municipal offices and fought with both Kosovo police and the peacekeepers, leaving 30 NATO soldiers and 50 rioters injured.
Serbs are a minority in Kosovo, but a majority in parts of the country’s north bordering Serbia. Many reject the Albanian-majority territory’s claim of independence from Serbia. A former province of Serbia, Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence is also not recognized by Belgrade.
The United States and the European Union recently have stepped up efforts to solve the dispute as the war rages in Ukraine. NATO said it will send 700 more troops to northern Kosovo to help quell violent protests after the clashes on Monday. The NATO-led peacekeeping mission, KFOR, currently consists of almost 3,800 troops.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged “all parties to take immediate actions to de-escalate tensions.” Blinken described violence against soldiers from the multinational force known as KFOR as “unacceptable.”
A German government spokesperson said Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron plan to meet with the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo on Thursday.
Spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit told reporters in Berlin that the meeting will take place on the sidelines of the European Political Community meeting in Chisinau, Moldova.
The confrontation first unfolded last week after ethnic Albanian officials, who were elected in a vote that Serbs overwhelmingly boycotted, entered municipal buildings to take office with an escort of Kosovo police.
When Serbs tried to block the officials, Kosovo police fired tear gas to disperse them. In Zvecan on Monday, angry Serbs again clashed first with the police and later with NATO-led troops who tried to secure the area.
Serbia put the country’s military on its highest state of alert and sent more troops to the border with Kosovo.
While Washington and most EU nations recognize Kosovo’s statehood, Belgrade has the backing of Russia and China in rejecting it. Western officials have sharply criticized both Kosovo’s authorities for pushing to install the newly-elected mayors, and Serbs because of the violence.
“The Government of Kosovo’s decision to force access to municipal buildings sharply and unnecessarily escalated tensions,” said Blinken.
He urged Kosovo to use alternate locations for the new mayors and withdraw police from the vicinity of the municipal buildings. Serbia, he said, should lower its army’s alert level and make sure KFOR troops are not attacked.
“Both Kosovo and Serbia should immediately recommit to engaging in the EU-facilitated Dialogue to normalize relations,” said Blinken.
In Pristina, U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Jeff Hovenier said Kosovo’s participation in the Defender Europe 23 military drills has been cancelled. The exercises involve some 2,800 U.S. troops and 7,000 soldiers from other nations including Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece and Turkey.
French President Macron also criticized Kosovo for organizing the municipal election in the country’s north. He said Kosovo disrespected an EU-backed plan to normalize ties between former war foes.
“Very clearly, the Kosovar authorities are responsible for the current situation, and for failing to respect an agreement that was important and that was sealed just a few weeks ago,” he said.
Serbia’s Defense Minister on Wednesday told state broadcaster RTS that the “security situation is highly risky because of one-sided, illegal, illegitimate decisions by the administration in Pristina.”
“First of all, we should name it properly and try to define it as an occupation of the north of Kosovo by the Albanian administration in Pristina,” said Vucevic.
Serbian officials have repeatedly warned that Serbia would not stand idle if Serbs in Kosovo come under attack.
The 1998-1999 war in Kosovo erupted when ethnic Albanian separatists launched a rebellion against Serbia, which responded with a brutal crackdown. The war ended after NATO bombing forced Serbia to pull out of the territory, and paved the way for the deployment of NATO-led peacekeepers.
The Balkan region is still reckoning with the aftermath of a series of bloody conflicts in the 1990s during the violent breakup of the former country of Yugoslavia.
On Wednesday, United Nations judges imposed increased sentences for two allies of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who were convicted of an attempt to drive non-Serbs out of towns in Croatia and Bosnia during the wars in the 1990s. Milosevic also led Serbia during its 1998-1999 war in Kosovo.
AP reporters Llazar Semini, Jovana Gec and Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this story.