Kosovo marks day of mourning after deadly clashes in troubled north

Kosovo marks day of mourning after deadly clashes in troubled north

Kosovo police officers stand guard around the entrance to the village of Banjska, northern Kosovo.
Kosovo police officers stand guard around the entrance to the village of Banjska, northern Kosovo.

PRISTINA: Kosovo was in mourning Monday after a deadly clash between authorities and gunmen near the Serbian border that has prompted a large police operation and raised many unanswered questions.

The killing of a police officer during the ambush and ensuing firefight on Sunday marks one of the gravest escalations in Kosovo for years, following months of mounting tensions and stalling talks between the government in Pristina and Serbia.

Kosovo's Prime Minister Albin Kurti said a police operation was still underway while the site of the ambush was sealed off, as investigators sifted through evidence following a late-night gun battle that saw the standoff end.

"Many things will be resolved during the investigations," Kurti told Manuel Sarrazin -- the German envoy for the Western Balkans -- during their meeting on Monday.

The chaotic confrontation began when a police patrol was ambushed near the village of Banjska early Sunday leaving one Kosovo law enforcement officer dead and another wounded.

The gunmen fled to a nearby monastery where they barricaded themselves and traded gunfire with Kosovo police for hours, with at least three assailants shot dead in the melee.

Kosovo's Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla said authorities had already recovered "an exceptionally large number of heavy weapons, anti-infantry weapons, explosives, uniforms, logistics, food reserves, and equipment for barricades".

"We can easily say that the equipment was destined for several hundreds of other assailants," Svecla added.

The two major border crossings between Serbia and Kosovo also remained closed after they were sealed by Kosovo police on Sunday morning.

Questions remained, however, hours after the standoff ended with just a handful of alleged suspects arrested by Kosovo authorities during the clearance operation.

Asked if any assailants managed to escape from the Banjska monastery, interior minister Svecla said that an "operation" was ongoing but offered no more details.

On Sunday, Kurti said at least 30 heavily armed and uniformed men had barricaded themselves at the monastery.

Newspapers in Serbia offered a mixture of bravado, conspiracy, and hesitancy following the incident, with many quoting Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic's statement made late Sunday, where he denied involvement in the clashes and shifted blame over the incident on the government in Pristina.

- Escalation -

The attack came more than a week after negotiations between the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo centred on improving ties failed to make a breakthrough during EU-mediated negotiations in Brussels.

Tensions in the troubled north have been smouldering for months, following the Pristina government's decision to install ethnic Albanian mayors in four Serb-majority municipalities in May.

The move triggered one of the worst bouts of unrest in the north in years. Demonstrations followed, as well as the arrest of three Kosovar police officers by Serbia and a riot by Serb protesters in which more than 30 NATO peacekeepers were injured.

Kosovo remains overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Albanians, but in the northern stretches of the territory near the border with Serbia, ethnic Serbs remain the majority in several municipalities.

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