A police officer killed, armed men holed up in a monastery

Armed men holed up in a monastery, heavy weapons fire against the police, a police officer killed: the situation in northern Kosovo was chaotic on Sunday, with authorities in Pristina blaming ‘organized crime supported by officials in Belgrade’ .

“There are at least 30 professionals, soldiers or armed police officers, who are currently surrounded by our police forces and whom I invite to surrender,” Prime Minister Albin Kurti described to journalists, showing images of Armed men in the courtyard of a monastery.

‘These are not civilians,’ he said, ‘but professionals, police or military, who are in and around a monastery’, in which there are pilgrims, according to the diocese.

Exchanges of fire

‘According to the latest information, masked men stormed the Banjska monastery in an armored vehicle and forced the gate. There is currently a group of pilgrims from Novi Sad (in Serbia, editor’s note) with an abbot, the diocese said in a press release. For their safety, they locked themselves inside, and ‘armed men move around the courtyard, where gunshots can be heard’.

A local police official confirmed to AFP that the exchanges of fire were continuing: ‘We can see armed men in uniform. They shoot at us and we shoot back.’

This violence has continued since the death early Sunday of a Kosovar police officer killed while patrolling near the border with Serbia.

He was going near a road reported as blocked when his unit ‘was attacked from different positions with heavy weapons, including grenades,’ according to police. One of his colleagues was injured in the attack.

Albin Kurti immediately denounced a ‘criminal and terrorist’ attack, and accused ‘officials in Belgrade’ of offering logistical and financial support ‘to organized crime’.

“It’s an attack on Kosovo,” added the president, Vjosa Osmani. ‘These attacks prove, if it were still necessary, the destabilizing power of criminal gangs, organized by Serbia, who have been destabilizing Kosovo and the region for a long time,’ she wrote in a press release, calling on Kosovo’s allies to support the country ‘in its efforts to establish peace and order and preserve sovereignty over the entire Republic of Kosovo’.

From crisis to crisis

Since a conflict which left 13,000 dead, mostly Kosovar Albanians, relations between the two former enemies have gone from crisis to crisis.

Serbia, supported in particular by its Russian and Chinese allies, refuses to recognize the independence of its former province, whose population of 1.8 million inhabitants, overwhelmingly of Albanian origin, includes a Serbian community of around 120,000 people, who live mainly in northern Kosovo.

This region is thus the scene of recurring unrest: tension there suddenly increased in May when the Kosovar authorities decided to appoint Albanian mayors in four municipalities with a Serbian majority.

A decision which triggered one of the worst episodes in the history of tensions in the north of the country in years, with demonstrations, the arrest of three Kosovar police officers by Serbia and a violent riot by Serbian demonstrators which more than 30 injured among NATO peacekeeping forces.

Failed discussions

The international community has urged both parties to de-escalate on several occasions, and stressed that the accession to the European Union of Belgrade and Pristina could be jeopardized by these renewed violence.

But ten days ago, the latest attempts at discussions between the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, and the Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic, failed after just a few hours.

The Serbian side wishes, as a prerequisite for any discussion, to obtain a form of association of Serbian communities in the north, while the Kosovar side has as a prerequisite recognition by Belgrade of the independence of Kosovo.

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