KFOR chief urges Kosovo and Serbia to resume talks to avoid more violence

KFOR chief urges Kosovo and Serbia to resume talks to avoid more violence
Peacekeepers guard the bridge over the Ibar in the divided Kosovan city of Mitrovica. / Clare Nuttall
By Clare Nuttall in Pristina October 7, 2023

The head of the Nato-led Kosovo Force (KFOR), Major General Angelo Michele Ristuccia on October 6 urged both Kosovo and Serbia to re-engage in negotiations to avert future outbreaks of violence in ethnically mixed northern Kosovo. 

Ristuccia made the appeal almost two weeks after violent clashes between an armed Serb gang and Kosovan law enforcers in the region on September 24, in which one police officer and four members of the Serb group were killed. 

The KFOR commander called at a press conference for both sides to avoid “inflammatory and counterproductive rhetoric”. He stressed the need for both countries to contribute to creating a stable environment in Kosovo and the surrounding region. 

“If the parties do not come back to the table ... and do not find a common solution and do not negotiate for a political solution, I think this balance will become more fragile and volatile in the future,” Ristuccia said.

He also reiterated KFOR's unwavering support for the European Union-facilitated dialogue, aimed at normalising relations between the two nations.

Banjska attack 

On September 24, a group of approximately 30 Serb gunmen erected barricades in the Banjska area, and killed a Kosovar police officer under unclear circumstances. The group then forced its way into a nearby Orthodox monastery and engaged in a prolonged gun battle with Kosovo police, resulting in the death of three gunmen.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced on September 29 that the KFOR peacekeeping force is being stepped up following the attack on September 24, with an additional 200 British troops. 

Further deployments from other Nato allies such as Romania are anticipated if the situation demands, Ristuccia told the press conference.

bne IntelliNews visited the divided city of Mitrovica, around 10km from Banjska, this week. As of early October, the situation in the city — split between the Serb north and Albanian south — was calm with no additional military presence. 

People bne IntelliNews interviewed in both Mitrovica and Pristina said that despite the recent violence in Banjska they were confident there would not be a larger scale conflict due to the presence of Nato peacekeepers in the country. 

British peacekeepers arrive 

On October 6, the UK defence ministry announced that the initial group of British soldiers, part of a two hundred-member deployment, landed in Pristina to bolster the peacekeeping mission. 

The incoming soldiers belong to the 1st Battalion of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment and are joining over 400 British troops already present in Kosovo. The will exiting contingent will remain in Kosovo to maintain stability, and the reinforcement effort also includes the arrival of hundreds of vehicles via sea freight.

“The UK is a leading Nato ally. Within a few days, the UK has responded to Nato’s call for reinforcements and deployed 200 additional soldiers from the First Battalion Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment for the Kosovo Force (KFOR). This shows the agility of the UK’s Armed Forces," said Defence Secretary Grant Shapps according to a ministry statement

London also said that the UK is working closely with its international partners to urge the two sides to de-escalate tensions and return to dialogue. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak spoke to the presidents of both countries during the European Political Community (EPC) meeting in Granada on October 5. 

Meanwhile, the Turkish defence ministry announced on October 5 that Turkey will take over the command of KFOR starting from October 10.

Germany warns of risk to EU accession 

Germany has also announced its decision to dispatch approximately 150 soldiers to Kosovo in April 2024, as confirmed by a spokesperson from the defence ministry in Berlin on October 6. 

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock commented on the situation on October 6, warning that the elevated tensions between Kosovo and Serbia pose a significant threat to their future accession to the European Union.

The EU already imposed punitive measures on Kosovo over its failure to de-escalation tensions in the north of the country following an early outbreak of unrest in May. 

Brussels may take similar steps against Serbia depending on what investigations into the events of September 24 reveal. 

The deputy leader of the main Serb political party in Kosovo Serb List, Milan Radoicic, confessed to leading the group, but it is currently unclear whether he was acting independently or if officials in Belgrade were involved in the attack. 

Despite the increase in tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, Baerbock talked of the geopolitical importance of expanding the EU to the Western Balkans to counter Russian influence in the region following the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. 

"Russia's attack on Ukraine makes EU enlargement to include the Western Balkans a geopolitical necessity," Baerbock during a visit to Tirana on October 6.