Around 30 Kosovo Serb paramilitaries ambushed a Kosovan police patrol in the village of Banjska in northern Kosovo on September 24. They then barricaded themselves in an Orthodox monastery near the northern border with Serbia in an hours-long shootout. The attack resulted in the deaths of one Kosovo police officer and three assailants.

The killing of the policeman brought years of distrust and bitterness to the surface, as a war of words between Belgrade and Pristina, competing days of mourning, and calls for sanctions further deteriorated already fractious relations.

Kosovo’s government has accused Belgrade of backing the entire operation, with Prime Minister Albin Kurti writing that the weapons and equipment used in the attack were “made by Serbian state-owned military arms producers.” Belgrade denies that while accusing Pristina of discriminating against the Serbian population in Kosovo.

Kosovo, a former Serbian province, which today is almost exclusively inhabited by Albanians, seceded from Serbia in 1999 with NATO assistance and declared independence in 2008. Serbia as well as five EU member states – Romania, Slovakia, Cyprus, Spain and Greece — do not recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty to this day.

The EU, with the support of the United States, is mediating in an attempt to normalise relations between the two sides which have worsened since last year.

NATO will send additional troops to bolster its Kosovo force

In response to the deadly attack, NATO deployed additional troops to Kosovo. Two hundred British soldiers arrived in Pristina to reinforce NATO’s peacekeeping mission KFOR, the North Atlantic Alliance and London’s Ministry of Defence announced on October 6. They will join the 400-strong British contingent already in Kosovo as part of an annual exercise.  

In addition, Romania announced the deployment of around 100 soldiers as part of the strategic reserve at the disposal of SACEUR, the Ministry of Defence reports.

The German defence ministry said that a company of 155 additional soldiers would be deployed in Kosovo for a year from April 2024. However, the expansion had been decided independently of the recent escalations in the region. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock warned on Friday that “the situation is so tense that NATO has increased” the deployment of KFOR, its mission in Kosovo, which currently has about 4,500 troops.

Serbia deploys, then withdraws military from Kosovo border

In the meantime, the United States warned of “a large Serbian military deployment along the border with Kosovo” and called on “Serbia to withdraw those forces from the border.” The build-up “includes an unprecedented staging of advanced Serbian artillery, tanks, mechanised infantry units. We believe that this is a very destabilising development,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

Following the warning, the White House said Belgrade had begun withdrawing troops from the border.

EU’s negotiator Bilčík: The destabilisation of the Balkans suits Putin’s Russia

The European Parliament’s negotiator for Serbia, Vladimír Bilčík, said the situation on the ground was seriously escalating and that Kosovo had not seen such violence in the last 10 years.

“Both sides have a huge responsibility to return to the dialogue,” Bilčík said. He added that dialogue had become more difficult since Kurti became Kosovo’s prime minister. “We need to find out what exactly happened and we need objective facts. The destabilisation of the Balkans suits Putin’s Russia. The only solution is to return to the negotiating table and dialogue,” Bilčík said.

The spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, said in a statement quoted by the agency Ria Novosti that the violence in Kosovo was “the direct and immediate consequence” of Prime Minister Kurti’s desire to “provoke a conflict and eliminate the Serbs from the territory of the region.” Zakharova added that Kurti’s push for recognition “brings the entire Balkan region to a dangerous abyss.” Russia does not recognise Kosovo’s independence.

Bosnia and Herzegovina fear spillover of Kosovo crisis

The tension has triggered concern in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) that a larger conflict could spill over to the country. Back in June, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, warned in the Atlantic Council that “if there is no immediate de-escalation, there is a danger that the crisis in Kosovo could turn into a regional conflict.”

The president of the Republika Srpska (RS), Milorad Dodik, in July stressed his support for the “southern Serbian province” and accused the international community of seizing Kosovo from Serbia. Dodik said “Republika Srpska is ready to fight with Serbia for Kosovo,” he added.

The status of Kosovo is one of the foreign policy issues over which the three ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina are in dispute. The Bosnian Serbs fully support the positions of Belgrade, while the prevailing view among Bosniaks and Croats is that Kosovo is a de facto independent state.

Kosovo calls for sanctions against Serbia

Kosovo's President Vjosa Osmani arrives to attend the European Political Community summit at the Palacio de Congreso.
Kosovo’s President Vjosa Osmani at the European Political Community summit at the Palacio de Congreso. Foto: Francisco J. Olmo/EUROPA PRESS/dpa

At the European Political Community in Granada on October 5, the president of Kosovo, Vjosa Osmani, asked the leaders to impose sanctions against Serbia, arguing that Belgrade was behind the deadly attacks. In an interview with EFE, she said “it is very clear that [Serbian President] Aleksandar Vučić and Serbia are acting as Putin’s proxies in our region and that they want to return Europe to the dark nineties.”

In Granada, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban dismissed Kosovo’s call for sanctions as “ridiculous and impossible.” Unanimity is required for sanctions to be imposed by the EU. Peter Stano, the spokesperson of EU High Representative Josep Borrell, clarified that once they have “a clear framework about the attack, the EU will decide the next steps.”

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama suggested that measures against Belgrade “should have been taken immediately,” especially those that the European Commission can impose “without the need for consensus among all member countries.” According to Rama, the mere fact that Serbia declared a national day of mourning for the Kosovo Serb gunmen killed in the gunfight was “unacceptable and punishable at all levels.”

EU calls on Kosovo and Serbia to reduce tensions and return to dialogue

Following the attack, European Commissioner for Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi called on Kosovo and Serbia to reduce tensions and return to dialogue during his visit to the Albanian capital Tirana on October 6.

Várhelyi and Baerbock attended a ministerial meeting of the Western Balkan countries within the framework of the Berlin Process, an initiative promoted by Germany in 2014 to promote cooperation in the region and their accession to the European Union.

The commissioner demanded that the perpetrators of the attack, most of whom fled to Serbia, be brought to justice, and demanded full and unconditional cooperation from Serbia’s judiciary.

Release of suspected commando leader

Meanwhile, a Belgrade court on October 4 ordered the conditional release of Milan Radoičić, the suspected leader of the paramilitaries in the attack.

Radoičić himself said he had set up the armed group without the knowledge of Serbia. But he denied the charges against him, which include “criminal association,” public security offences and having transported and stored weapons and ammunition in Kosovo. He must present himself twice a month to authorities. Radoičić, 45, is a businessman and former influential Kosovo Serb powerbroker.

Between January and the day of the attack, Radoičić procured the weapons from neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina and transported and stored them at “unspecified locations” in Kosovo, the court said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Kosovo President Osmani said that her country wanted to have Radoičić and other terrorists handed over to the Republic of Kosovo so that real justice could be delivered.

This article is published weekly. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.