The killing of a Kosovo police officer and an ensuing gun battle at a monastery in a village close to the Serbian border marked one of the gravest escalations in the former breakaway province in years.
Three Serb gunmen were killed in an hours-long firefight with Kosovo police, after they ambushed a patrol near the village of Banjska and later barricaded themselves at an Orthodox monastery. Kosovo authorities had earlier said four gunmen were killed in the melee but later put the number of dead at three.
The incident has triggered strong emotions in Kosovo and Serbia, with both sides pinning responsibility for the bloody clashes on the other.
In Serbia, officials have denied backing the gunmen who attacked the police but many have offered gushing praise for their actions.
Serbian Defence Minister Milos Vucevic said the gunmen were the latest in a long line of fighters who died “for freedom of Kosovo and freedom of Serbia”. “They are the new victims in this line of heroes or martyrs,” the minister told state-run RTS television on Wednesday.
Several newspapers also hailed the gunmen, with headlines calling them “heroes” and saying the country was collectively in “tears”.
War of words
The Pristina government has continued to accuse the Serbian government of backing the attack on its police force, a charge Belgrade denies. Kosovo’s interior ministry has accused a prominent politician from a major Serb political party of leading the attack.
On Wednesday, the ministry said one of the gunmen killed on Sunday had also served as a bodyguard for Serbia’s current intelligence chief Aleksandar Vulin during a trip to Kosovo in 2013.
“The state of Serbia is fully involved in this terrorist attack with the aim of destabilising the Republic of Kosovo,” Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla wrote on social media.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic denied the claim in an interview late Wednesday. “Serbia is marking a day of mourning because of the tragic events in Kosovo, because of the death of all the people. From the point of view of the constitution of our country, they are all citizens of our country,” Vucic said.
Earlier this week, a Kosovo court remanded three suspected gunmen in custody after they were arrested over the weekend.
In the village of Banjska on Wednesday, tensions continued to simmer with a special unit from the Kosovo police fanned out across the area. “We are still under house arrest, so to speak. I have a garden there where I can harvest a bit to feed ourselves, but I am not free to leave from here,” Banjska resident Slavisa Mitic told AFP.
Veton Elshani, a police official in north Kosovo, said authorities were still conducting limited operations in the area, but said the situation was stable.
Serbia-Kosovo talks at standstill
Questions remained over the fate of the remaining assailants who participated in the attack, with Kosovo authorities saying at least six had escaped across the border into Serbia.
The attack came more than a week after negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia leaders on improving ties failed to make a breakthrough during European Union-sponsored talks in Brussels.
Tensions in Kosovo’s troubled north have been smouldering for months, following the Pristina government’s decision in May to install ethnic Albanian mayors in four Serb-majority municipalities there.
Demonstrations followed, as well as the arrest by Serbia of three Kosovar police officers and a riot by Serb protesters which saw more than 30 NATO peacekeepers injured.
The clash in the north is just the latest incident to rock the area since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Belgrade – and key allies China and Russia – have refused to recognise the move.
Animosity between Kosovo and Serbia has persisted since a war between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian insurgents in the late 1990s that drew NATO intervention against Belgrade.
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