Serbian border troops to maintain highest state of alert after ethnic clashes inside Kosovo

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

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

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

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

The statement also said that an international civilian mission and NATO-led troops, that have been stationed in the former Serbian province since Serbian troops were forced to leave the region in 1999, “did not do their job” to protect the Serbs.

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

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

Ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo, who are a majority in that part of the country, had tried to block recently elected ethnic Albanian officials from entering municipal buildings on Friday. Last month’s snap local election was largely boycotted by ethnic Serbs and only ethnic Albanian or other smaller minority representatives were elected in the mayoral posts and assemblies.

Kosovo police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd and let the new officials into the offices. Several cars were set ablaze.

The United States and several Western countries condemned Kosovo’s government for using police to forcibly allow entry to the municipal buildings. Kosovo Prime Minister Kurti on Saturday defended the police action.

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

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

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

NATO’s military intervention in 1999 eventually forced Serbia to pull out of the territory. Washington and most EU countries have recognized Kosovo as an independent state, but Serbia, Russia and China have not.

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AP writer Llazar Semini contributed from Tirana, Albania.