PRISTINA – Serbian troops on the border with Kosovo were put on high alert Friday following clashes inside Kosovo between police and ethnic Serbs that injured more than a dozen people.
Ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo, who are a majority in that part of the country, had tried to block recently-elected ethnic Albanian officials from entering municipal buildings earlier Friday. Last month's snap election was largely boycotted by ethnic Serbs and only ethnic Albanian or other smaller minority representatives were elected in the mayoral posts and assemblies.
Kosovo police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd and let the new officials into the offices. Several cars were set ablaze. Kosovo Serb hospital officials said about 10 protesters were injured. Police said five officers were injured as protesters hurled stun grenades and other objects. A police car was burned.
In response to the clashes, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he put the army on the “highest state of alert” and ordered an “urgent” movement of troops closer to the border. He also demanded that NATO-led troops stationed in Kosovo protect ethnic Serbs from the police.
The United States condemned Kosovo's government for using police to forcibly enter the municipal buildings.
“These actions have sharply and unnecessarily escalated tensions, undermining our efforts to help normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia and will have consequences for our bilateral relations with Kosovo,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday.
Vucic spoke at a rally Friday evening in Belgrade as tens of thousands of people turned out to support the government in the wake of two mass shootings earlier this month that killed 18 people and wounded 20 others, stunning the nation.
“We will preserve peace — but I am telling you that Serbia won’t sit idle the moment Serbs in northern Kosovo are attacked,” he told the crowd.
Vucic has previously warned that Belgrade would respond to violence against Serbs, and has stepped up combat readiness several times during moments of tension with Kosovo.
However, any attempt by Serbia to send its troops over the border would mean a clash with NATO troops stationed there.
Zdravko Ponos, a former Serbian army chief turned opposition politician, criticized Vucic's response as “inappropriate.”
“This is only saber-rattling that serves as face-saving for Vucic,” Ponos told the N1 regional television network.
Kosovo police acknowledged their increased presence “to assist mayors of the northern communes of Zvecan, Leposavic and Zubin Potok to exert their right of work."
New mayors in three northern communities were prevented from entering municipal buildings, with small groups of Serbs raising their hands at the entrances, apparently to show they were not there to take part in violence, according to Albanian news outlet indexonline.net, which also published photos.
In Zvecan, the news website Kosovo-online.com showed clashes with police in front of the municipal building, while in Leposavic the main square was blocked with cars and trucks.
Local elections were held in four Serb-dominated communes in northern Kosovo after Serb representatives left their posts last year. They had resigned in protest because Kosovo authorities' refused to allow an ethnic Serbian association to coordinate work on education, health care, land planning and economic development at the local level.
A 2013 Pristina-Belgrade agreement on forming the Serb association was later declared unconstitutional by Kosovo’s Constitutional Court, which said the plan wasn’t inclusive of other ethnicities and could entail the use of executive powers to impose laws.
The two sides have tentatively agreed to back a EU plan on how to proceed, but tensions still simmer.
The U.S. and the EU have stepped up efforts to help solve the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, fearing further instability in Europe as war rages in Ukraine. The EU has made it clear to both Serbia and Kosovo they must normalize relations to advance in their intentions to join the bloc.
The conflict in Kosovo erupted in 1998 when separatist ethnic Albanians rebelled against Serbia’s rule, and Serbia responded with a brutal crackdown. About 13,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, died. NATO’s military intervention in 1999 eventually forced Serbia to pull out of the territory. Washington and most EU countries have recognized Kosovo as an independent state, but Serbia, Russia and China have not.
Semini reported from Tirana, Albania. Associated Press writers Dusan Stojanovic and Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.