Serbian border troops remain on high alert after ethnic clashes in Kosovo

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) – Serbia on Saturday condemned NATO-led peacekeepers stationed in neighboring Kosovo for their alleged failure to stop “brutal actions”. by the Kosovo Police against ethnic Serbs and said that forces stationed near the border will remain on high alert until further notice.

Serbia’s top political and security leadership, led by President Aleksandar Vucic, met in Belgrade on Saturday after violent clashes erupted a day earlier between Kosovar police and ethnic Serbs that left more than a dozen people injured.

In response to the clashes, Vucic on Friday ordered troops to be moved closer to the border with Kosovo.

“Due to the brutal use of force by (Kosovo Prime Minister) Albin Kurti and his armed forces against the Serb people of Kosovo … the Armed Forces of the Republic of Serbia will remain at the highest level of combat readiness,” said a statement after the Serbian top leadership meeting on Saturday.

The statement also said that an international civilian mission and NATO-led troops stationed in the former Serbian province since the forced withdrawal of Serb troops from the region in 1999 “have failed in their task” to protect the Serbs .

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NATO spokeswoman Oana Longescu called on “Kosovo institutions to de-escalate immediately” and urged all parties to “resolve the situation through dialogue.”

She said on Twitter that NATO “remains vigilant and will ensure a secure environment” in Kosovo.

Ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo, who make up the majority in that part of the country, tried on Friday to bar recently elected Albanian officials from city buildings. Last month’s snap local elections were largely boycotted by ethnic Serbs, and only representatives of ethnic Albanians or other smaller minorities were elected to mayoral offices and assemblies.

Kosovo police used tear gas to disperse the crowd and let the new officers into the offices. Several cars were set on fire.

The United States and several Western countries condemned the Kosovar government for using the police to force entry into the city’s buildings. Kosovar Prime Minister Kurti defended the actions of the police on Saturday.

“It is the right of those elected in democratic elections to take office without threats or intimidation,” Kurti said on Twitter. “It is also the right of citizens to be served by these elected officials. Participation – not violent obstruction – is the right way to express political views in a democracy.”

This is not the first time Vucic has warned that Belgrade would respond to violence against Serbs, and he has repeatedly raised combat readiness at moments of tension with Kosovo. However, any attempt by Serbia to send its troops across the border would mean a clash with NATO troops stationed there.

The conflict in Kosovo erupted in 1998 when separatist ethnic Albanians rebelled against Serbian rule and Serbia responded with brutal crackdowns. About 13,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, died.

NATO military intervention in 1999 finally forced Serbia to withdraw from the territory. Washington and most EU countries have recognized Kosovo as an independent state, but not Serbia, Russia and China.

AP writer Llazar Semini wrote from Tirana, Albania.

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