PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Dozens of Serb gunmen dressed in combat uniforms killed a Kosovar Albanian police officer then stormed an Orthodox monastery in Kosovo near its border with Serbia, setting off gunbattles that left three assailants dead and further raised tensions between the two former wartime foes as they seek to normalize ties.
Kosovo police surrounded Banjska, a village located 55 kilometers (35 miles) north of Kosovo’s capital where the monastery is located, and the gunfire was continuing, according to Prime Minister Albin Kurti. Kosovo’s interior minister stated later Sunday that the area was under control but he did not say if the gunmen had left.
The Kosovo Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church said a temple of the monastery in Banjska was locked down after the gunmen stormed it. A group of pilgrims from Serbia was inside the temple along with an abbot.
Kurti said the attack was supported by Serbia. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic spoke later Sunday in Belgrade to say the gunmen were local Kosovo Serbs “who no longer want to stand Kurti’s terror.”
Vucic condemned the killing of the Kosovo policeman, saying it “cannot be justified,” but still said the clash was the result of “brutal” pressure on Kosovo Serbs by the Kosovo government. He denied that Belgrade had anything to do with the attack.
Asked how come the Serb gunmen were photographed wearing combat uniforms, Vucic said anyone can purchase such uniforms in ordinary shops and that the ones seen did not belong to the Serbian military or police force.
“The only culprit for what happened in Kosovo … is Albin Kurti,” said Vucic, also blasting the West and its “hypocrisy” when it comes to Kosovo.
“You can kill us all. Serbia will never recognize the independence of Kosovo, that monster creation that you made by bombing Serbia,” Vucic said.
Serbia and its former province, Kosovo, have been at odds for decades. Their 1998-99 war left more than 10,000 people dead, mostly Kosovo Albanians. Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008 but Belgrade has refused to recognize the move.
Earlier this month, an EU-facilitated meeting in Brussels between Kurti and Vucic to normalize ties ended in acrimony. The United States has supported the negotiations and the EU’s position in trying to resolve the ongoing source of tension in the Balkans.
On Sunday, the Kosovo diocese said gunmen in an armored vehicle stormed the monastery, breaking down the locked gate and shooting guns. “Armed, masked men move around the courtyard and occasional gunshots are heard,” it said.
Earlier Sunday, Prime Minister Kurti said “masked professionals armed with heavy weapons” launched the attack, opening fire on a police patrol at about 3 a.m. (01:00 GMT) in Banjska near the monastery.
Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla said they had arrested 6 gunmen, 2 of whom were injured, and found “an “extraordinarily large amount of weaponry and ammunition, explosives.”
Three of the assailants were killed. One police officer has been killed and two others injured, the last during the armed confrontation, apparently near the monastery at the village, authorities said.
At a news conference Kurti described the armed assailants as “an organized professional unit who have come to fight in Kosovo,” calling on them to hand themselves over to Kosovar authorities.
Police said the situation remained tense while “gunfire attacks against police units continue with the same intensity from the moving criminal groupings.”
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. The police officers came under fire from weapons that included 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 dead police officer as Afrim Bunjaku.
Local roads and two borders crossings into 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 some gunfire, then silence, shootings, detonations,” Serbian news agency Kossev quoted an unidentified resident as saying.
Kurti wrote on his Facebook page that “Organized crime, which is politically, financially and logistically supported from Belgrade, is attacking our state.”
The speaker of Serbia’s parliament, Vladimir Orlic, responded that Kurti “was quick to blame the Serbs” but actually was the one who wanted an “escalation.”
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, condemned “the hideous attack by an armed gang against Kosovo police officers” and said “all facts about the attack need to be established. The responsible perpetrators must face justice.”
He added that the EU’s 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 talked by phone with Kurti and Vucic, reiterating “his call for the assailants to surrender immediately and the release of the pilgrims at Banjska Monastery, for them to leave safely.”
International police officers from the EU mission and a limited number of Kosovo police have been responsible for enforcing the rule of law in northern Kosovo. Serbia has vehemently protested the presence of the Kosovo Police.
In February, the EU put forward a 10-point plan to end the latest round of heightened tensions between Serbia and Kosovo. Kurti and Vucic gave their approval at the time, but with some reservations that have still not been resolved.
The EU warned both countries that the commitments the leaders made in February “are binding on them and play a role in the European path of the parties” — in other words, Serbia and Kosovo’s chances of joining the 27-nation bloc.
Semini reported from Tirana, Albania; Jovana Gec and Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade.
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