KFOR forcibly disperses protest in northern Kosovo

KFOR forcibly disperses protest in northern Kosovo
A picture posted on Twitter by Kosovo’s ambassador to the UK, Ilir Kapiti, shows a vehicle daubed with the Russian nationalist ‘Z’ symbol. / Ilir Kapiti via Twitter
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje May 29, 2023

Tensions escalated further in northern Kosovo on May 29 when Nato-led KFOR forces resorted to tear gas and shock bombs to disperse ethnic Serbs who gathered in front of the Zvecan municipality building in northern Kosovo.

Following the May 26 protest when Kosovan Serbs attempted to block newly elected Albanian mayors from entering municipal buildings in three Serb-majority municipalities, Zvecan, Leposavic and Zubin Potok, KFOR forces were deployed to the area.

The KFOR action, which was carried out in order to move two armoured Kosovo police vehicles that were surrounded by Serbs, led to a retaliatory response from the crowd that started to throw stones and bottles at KFOR forces. 

Kosovan police then got out of their vehicle and started shooting. In addition to shock bombs, rubber bullets were also used.

Tanjug reported that after the clashes the situation in Zvecan was relatively calm around 6pm, but about 1,000 ethnic Serbs were still present on the streets, while KFOR units stood in a cordon in front of the municipality building. A KFOR helicopter has been patrolling the area.

“Nato strongly condemns the unprovoked attacks against @NATO_KFOR troops in northern #Kosovo, which led to a number of them being injured. Such attacks are totally unacceptable. #KFOR will take all necessary actions to fulfil its UN mandate,” Nato's spokeperson Oana Lungesku tweeted.

Dozens injured 

Numerous casualties have been reported on both sides. Reports from Zvecan say gunshots and explosions were heard from various locations. 

Novosti reported that according to Dr Zlatan Elek, director of the hospital in Kosovska Mitrovica, more than 50 citizens who were attacked in Zvecan came to the health facility with injuries from shock bombs, rubber bullets and ammunition.

RTS confirmed that two Serbs were wounded by firearms during the conflict in Zvecan and one of them is in a very serious condition. They include a reporter from Serbian news agency Tanjug, who was injured when a shock bomb detonated near him.

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said that 11 Italian KFOR soldiers are among those injured. In a tweet he said: “I want to express my solidarity with the soldiers of the KFOR mission who were injured in Kosovo during the clashes between Serbian demonstrators and the Kosovar police. Among them 11 Italians, three of whom are in serious but not life threatening conditions.”

Those with minor injuries received medical treatment at the Health Centre in Zvecan, while those with more severe injuries were transported to the hospital in Mitrovica North.

Telegrafi reported that journalists from various Kosovan media outlets were threatened by masked protesters. Press vehicles were damaged, one of them was burned, and Serbian nationalist inscriptions were also written on them. A picture posted on Twitter by Kosovo’s ambassador to the UK, Ilir Kapiti, shows a vehicle daubed with the Russian nationalist ‘Z’ symbol. 

More demonstrations planned

There are no signs of de-escalation as new gatherings are planned for May 30.

In contrast, there have been no reported tensions in Leposavic and Zubin Potok. The demonstrators there have dispersed, but they have announced plans for a new gathering on May 30.

In Mitrovica North the new mayor, Erden Atic, was sworn in earlier this month but without major incidents. The mayors of all four municipalities were elected in votes boycotted by Serbs, which make up the majority of the local population. 

Officials from Kosovo and Serbia have blamed each other for the violence. 

On May 29, Goran Rakic, the president of the Serb List, the biggest party of Serbs in Kosovo, said that the protesters in front of the Zvecan municipality had two demands: the removal of illegitimate mayors from their positions and the withdrawal of Kosovo’s special operations units, ROSU, from northern Kosovo and from municipal buildings.

Rakic confirmed that these requests were communicated to KFOR and relevant officials.

Last night, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic expressed concern about the situation and predicted a difficult period for Kosovo due to “provocative actions” by Prime Minister Albin Kurti.

He warned of potential instability and significant conflicts, saying the Serbian population “cannot tolerate” the current situation. Vucic further emphasised that the Serbs would “not remain passive” and would likely engage in protests. 

Serbian Defence Minister Milos Vucevic said that the full deployment of the Serbian army along the administrative border with Kosovo as ordered by Vucic will be completed by 2pm on May 29.

He highlighted the army's high level of combat readiness, expressing hope for a political solution, while emphasising that the Serbian army would execute any orders issued.

Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani tweeted: "Serb illegal structures turned into criminal gangs have attacked Kosovo police, KFOR officers & journalists. These unacceptable acts of violence should be condemned by all. Those who carry out Vucic's orders to destabilise the north of Kosovo, must face justice.” 

Kurti said he had a phone conversation with Tajani. “We both agreed that the current time calls for the implementation of the Basic Agreement and the situation in the north to be calmed down,” he tweeted. 

The US ambassador to Kosovo, Jeffrey Hovenier, expressed deep concern about the situation in northern Kosovo and stressed the importance of preventing further escalation.

After a meeting with Osmani, Hovenier addressed the media, underscoring the need to avoid forcible entry into municipal facilities in the north.

He said the US recommendation is that mayors do not work from municipal buildings, and instead utilise alternative locations, Kosovo-online reported.