Kosovo police dispersed with tear gas Friday, Serb demonstrators who were protesting against Albanians assuming the presidency of municipalities in the north of the country based on the results of elections that challenge their legitimacy, in a region where the Serbs constitute a majority.
Serbia, which had Kosovo as a dependency until the intervention of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1999, has put its army on high alert and ordered to send troops towards the border, a step it has taken several times in recent years.
Mayors were elected in a local ballot organized by the Kosovo authorities on April 23 in four regions where Serbs, who boycotted the elections, form a majority. Only 1,500 voters out of 45,000 registered voters participated in the poll.
Washington condemned the decision of the Kosovar authorities to appoint these officials, despite warnings from the European Union and the United States.
“These actions have sharply and unnecessarily exacerbated differences, undermining our efforts to help normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia, and will have repercussions for our bilateral relations with Kosovo,” US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a statement.
It also called on the United States, Britain, France, Italy and Germany to “retreat immediately and contain the escalation.” In a joint statement, these countries expressed their “concern over Serbia’s decision to raise the level of alertness of its armed forces at the border with Kosovo.”
The statement called on “all parties to exercise maximum restraint and avoid inflammatory rhetoric.”
A journalist from Agence France-Presse reported that clashes took place between a number of Serb residents and the police in front of the municipality of Zvecan first.
The police used tear gas to repel the demonstrators, while sound bombs were heard. In video recordings circulating on social media, gunfire is also heard.
The assistant head of the local hospital, Danica Radomirovic, told local media that around 10 people were slightly injured and were being treated at a hospital in the northern part of the divided city of Mitrovica.
The same sources stated that at least one police car was damaged.
Security forces used tear gas to disperse protesters in two other municipalities, Leposavic and Zubin Potok, Serbian national television reported.
Serbs set up barricades near Leposavic, and television added.
In Belgrade, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic ordered the army to be put on “high alert”, as has happened several times in recent years due to tensions with Kosovo, most recently in December.
He was also ordered to “move” towards the border with this former Serbian province, Serbian television announced.
The Kosovo Police did not comment on the latest incidents, saying only that they had assisted the new mayors in taking office in three of the four municipalities concerned.
Kosovo, the former Serbian province that declared its independence in 2008, is witnessing frequent confrontations in the north, as Belgrade encourages Serbs to challenge the country’s authorities, which seek to impose its sovereignty over the entire region.
The municipal elections took place a month after the European Union announced an agreement on normalizing relations between Belgrade and Pristina during a meeting in Ohrid in North Macedonia, but it was not signed by either party.
The number of Serbs in Kosovo is estimated at 120,000 people, mostly in four northern regions.
Belgrade supported the Serbs in boycotting local elections in April. It is pushing for the creation of a “Federation of Serb Municipalities”, which would secure a form of autonomy for this minority in Kosovo, which has a population of 1.8 million, most of whom are Albanians.
The main Serb party in Kosovo threatened a “decisive response” from the Serbs if the “repression” of Kosovar President Albin Kurti did not stop.