Kosovo is in mourning for a police officer who was killed by Serb gunmen in the north of the country on Sunday, in one of the worst confrontations since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
The officer, Afrim Bunjaku, was shot dead by masked gunmen dressed in combat uniforms who opened fire on a police patrol in Banjska, a village near the border with Serbia. Another officer was injured in the attack.
The gunmen then used an armored vehicle to break into an Orthodox monastery in the village, where they barricaded themselves for hours and exchanged fire with Kosovo police. Three of the gunmen were killed and two wounded in the standoff, while another officer was injured near the monastery.
The gunmen escaped from the monastery after dark and some of them are still at large, according to Kosovo authorities. Police have arrested two of the gunmen and four other Serbs who were found nearby with communication equipment. They are being investigated for terrorist acts.
Police also seized vehicles, weapons, explosives and ammunition from the gunmen, who are believed to be part of a “terrorist, criminal, professional unit” that is “politically, financially and logistically supported by official Belgrade”, according to Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti.
Kurti accused Serbia of backing the “terrorists” and said that the attack was a provocation aimed at destabilizing Kosovo and undermining its sovereignty. He called on the international community to condemn Serbia’s role and support Kosovo’s security forces.
Serbia denied any involvement in the attack and said that the gunmen were local Kosovo Serbs who were protesting against the “brutal” pressure and discrimination by the Kosovo government. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic condemned the killing of the Kosovo policeman, but also blamed Kurti for creating a “climate of hatred” and escalating tensions in the region.
Vucic said that Serbia would protect its interests and people in Kosovo and warned that any attempt to use force against them would have “grave consequences”. He urged dialogue and peaceful resolution of the dispute.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, following a war in 1998-1999 that killed more than 10,000 people. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s statehood and considers it part of its territory. The two countries have been engaged in EU-mediated talks to normalize their relations, but progress has been slow and sporadic.
The attack on Sunday has raised fears of a new cycle of violence and instability in Kosovo, where tensions between the ethnic Albanian majority and the Serb minority remain high. The international community has called for calm and restraint from both sides and urged them to resume dialogue as soon as possible.