Kosovo police clashed with ethnic Serb protesters on Monday, who demanded the withdrawal of law enforcement officers and new ethnic Albanian mayors from northern Kosovo. The protesters threw tear gas and tried to force their way into municipal buildings, while police responded with pepper spray and tear gas to disperse them.
The protests erupted after Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti installed the mayors last week, following an election in April that was boycotted by the ethnic Serb minority. The mayors won with a very low turnout of less than 3.5 percent, mostly from ethnic Albanians who live in the north.
The ethnic Serbs, who make up about 10 percent of Kosovo’s population, do not recognize Kosovo’s 2008 independence from Serbia and consider the mayors illegitimate. They also oppose the presence of Kosovo police in the north, which they see as a violation of their autonomy.
The clashes triggered a strong reaction from Serbia, which put its army on high alert and moved troops closer to the border with Kosovo. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic accused Kosovo of provoking a conflict and demanded that NATO-led peacekeepers protect the Serbs from the police.
NATO troops, who have been deployed in Kosovo since 1999 to maintain security and stability, formed security cordons around four town halls in northern Kosovo to prevent further violence. They also called on both sides to refrain from actions that could escalate tensions and urged them to resume dialogue.
The incident has increased the pressure on Kurti, who took office in March after winning a landslide victory on an anti-corruption platform. He has been reluctant to engage in EU-mediated talks with Serbia, which are aimed at normalizing relations and paving the way for both countries to join the bloc.
Kosovo, which has a population of about 1.8 million, declared independence from Serbia in 2008, nine years after NATO intervened to stop a bloody crackdown by Serbian forces on ethnic Albanian rebels. Serbia still considers Kosovo its southern province and has the support of its ally Russia. More than 100 countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, including the US and most EU members.