PRISTINA, Kosovo — At least 30 gunmen killed a Kosovo Albanian police officer, then stormed an Orthodox monastery in Kosovo near the border with Serbia, sparking exchanges of fire that left three people dead and increased tensions between the two former war foes as they sought to normalize their activities. ties.
Police have surrounded Banjska, a village 55 kilometers north of Kosovo’s capital where the monastery is located, and shooting continues, according to Prime Minister Albin Kurti. Kosovo’s interior minister said later Sunday that the area was under control, but he did not say whether the gunmen had left.
The Kosovo Serbian Orthodox Church diocese said a temple in the Banjska monastery had been locked down after armed men stormed it. A group of Serbian pilgrims were inside the temple with an abbot.
Kurti said the attack was supported by Serbia. Pro-government Serbian media responded that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic would speak later on Sunday to “denounce Kurti’s lies.” It was not clear whether the gunmen were Serbs.
Serbia and its former province, Kosovo, have been at odds for decades. Their 1998-99 war left more than 10,000 dead, most of them Kosovo Albanians. Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008, but Belgrade has refused to recognize the decision.
Earlier this month, an EU-facilitated meeting in Brussels between Kurti and Vucic to normalize relations ended in acrimony. The United States supported the EU’s negotiations and position aimed at resolving the lingering source of tension in the Balkans.
On Sunday, the Kosovo diocese said a group of masked men in an armored vehicle stormed the monastery, breaking down the locked door and firing guns.
“Armed, masked men are moving around the courtyard and occasional gunshots are heard,” he added.
Earlier on Sunday, Prime Minister Kurti said “masked professionals armed with heavy weapons” launched the attack, opening fire on a police patrol around 3 a.m. (0100 GMT) in Banjska, near the monastery.
Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla said they arrested 6 armed men, 2 of whom were injured, and found “an extraordinarily large quantity of weapons, ammunition and explosives.”
Three of the attackers were killed. A police officer was killed and two others injured, the latter in the armed clash, apparently near the village monastery, authorities said.
At a press conference, Kurti showed a series of photos showing a number of four-wheel drive vehicles without number plates and an armored personnel carrier “which does not belong to the Kosovo Police” near the monastery.
He described the armed attackers as “an organized professional unit that came to fight in Kosovo,” calling on them to surrender to Kosovar authorities.
Police said the situation remained tense as “shooting against police units continues with the same intensity from moving criminal groups.”
Kosovo police said the attack began when three police units were dispatched to a bridge at the entrance to the village that had been blocked by trucks. Police officers came under fire from weapons, including hand grenades and bombs, and one was killed. The armed men then stormed the monastery.
Kurti called it a “sad day” for Kosovo, identifying the deceased policeman as Afrim Bunjaku.
Local roads and two border crossings with Serbia were closed. Most of Kosovo’s ethnic Serb minority lives in four municipalities around Mitrovica in the north.
“It was a real little war: first gunshots, then silence, shots, detonations,” the Serbian Kossev news agency quoted an unidentified resident as saying.
The speaker of the Serbian parliament, Vladimir Orlic, responded that Kurti “rushed to blame the Serbs”, but that in reality it was he who wanted an “escalation”.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned the “horrific attack by an armed gang against Kosovo police officers” and said “all the facts surrounding this attack must be established.” The perpetrators responsible must be brought to justice.
He added that the EU rule of law mission, or EULEX, had representatives on the ground and in close contact with authorities and the NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kosovo .
Borrell spoke by telephone with Kurti and Vucic, reiterating “his call for the attackers to surrender immediately and for the release of the pilgrims from the Banjska monastery, so that they can leave safely.”
International police officers from the EU mission and a limited number of Kosovo police officers are responsible for enforcing the rule of law in northern Kosovo. Serbia vehemently protested the presence of Kosovo police.
In February, the EU presented a 10-point plan to end the latest wave of heightened tensions between Serbia and Kosovo. Kurti and Vucic agreed at the time, but with some reservations that have still not been resolved.
The EU has warned both countries that the commitments made by the leaders in February “bind them and play a role in the parties’ European path” – in other words, in Serbia and Kosovo’s chances of joining the bloc of 27 nations.
The border between Kosovo and Serbia is guarded by peacekeepers from the 4,000-strong NATO-led KFOR force, which has been in Kosovo since 1999. In May, tensions in northern Kosovo Kosovo injured 93 soldiers during riots.
Semini reported from Tirana, Albania; Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade.
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