Tensions escalate as Kosovan police officer killed in predominantly Serb north

Tensions escalate as Kosovan police officer killed in predominantly Serb north
A Kosovan police officer was killed on September 24 and another border policeman was wounded.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje September 24, 2023

A Kosovan police officer was killed on September 24 and another border policeman was wounded in a shootout in the country's north, inhabited mainly by ethnic Serbs. Kosovo’s authorities labeled the incident as a terrorist attack backed by official Belgrade, the police announced.

The incident happened in the village of Banjska in the Leposavic municipality.  This is the first major incident after months of efforts from both Kosovo and Serbia to mitigate tensions that arose in late May due to confrontations in the northern region, stemming from unsuccessful local elections.

The latest incident has jeopardised the EU-mediated negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina aimed at enhancing their bilateral relations. These talks had already hit a standstill following the unsuccessful round of discussions on September 14.

Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti has announced a meeting of the Security Council of Kosovo, expressing concerns that organised crime, with political, financial and logistical backing from official Belgrade, is responsible for the assault on Kosovo.

President Vjosa Osmani stated that this attack was planned, orchestrated and executed by Serbian criminal groups during the performance of police duties.

"A terrorist attack by Serbia's criminal groups killed one brave police officer and injured another in the line of duty in north Kosovo. Our hearts go out to their families. Kosovo stands united against Serbia’s destabilising attempts. We’ll preserve our sovereignty and territorial integrity," Osmani tweeted.

The Kosovo police stated that the incident took place around 02.30 a.m. while officers were performing their regular duties in North Mitrovica, when the rapid intervention unit of the border police encountered two unregistered heavy trucks blocking the entrance to the village of Bajnska via a bridge, the police said.

As the police responded, they faced resistance and came under fire from multiple positions, with assailants wielding firearms, including hand grenades and stun guns.

Police units managed to repel the initial attack, allowing for the evacuation of the wounded officers. Despite their efforts, one of the officers succumbed to his injuries upon arrival at the regional hospital in South Mitrovica.

The Kosovo police said that, in collaboration with relevant institutions and justice bodies, they are taking all necessary measures to restore order, ensure public safety and bring the perpetrators to justice.

According to media reports, as result of recent developments, the border crossing point in Brnjak and Jarinje with Serbia have been closed.

"Armed group attacks continue. There are at least 30 heavily armed individuals surrounded by our forces, and I call on them to surrender. They are the ones attacking our police. The perpetrators and their instigators will be apprehended and punished," stated Kurti after the Security Council meeting held in Pristina on September 24.

In a first reaction from Serbia, speaker of the Serbian parliament Vladimir Orlic criticised Kurti for promptly pointing at the Serbs regarding the events in Banjska. Orlic argued that a more judicious approach would involve first understanding the precise sequence of events before making any comments, according to Serbian broadcaster RTS.

Kosovo, predominantly inhabited by ethnic Albanians, unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, following the 1998-99 conflict with Serbian forces, which ended with Nato attacks on Serbian targets.