Tensions rise as Kosovo police arrest senior Serbian official

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2018, 10:19am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2018, 10:19am

Kosovo police on Monday arrested a senior Serbian official in the flashpoint town of Mitrovica, raising fears of fresh tensions between the former foes trying to relaunch a dialogue.

Marko Djuric, Belgrade’s chief negotiator for Kosovo – a former Serbian province that proclaimed independence in 2008 – was arrested after he crossed into the disputed territory and travelled to Mitrovica in defiance of a ban, a police spokesman said.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said in a statement that Djuric was escorted by police to a “border crossing point between Kosovo and Serbia.”

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic meanwhile called a national security council meeting.

No incidents were reported Monday evening in Mitrovica in northern Kosovo. After the arrest, Djuric was taken to a police centre in Pristina, a police spokesman said.

Kosovo authorities said earlier that Djuric did not obtain authorisation to enter.

Serbian officials visiting Kosovo commonly seek Pristina’s approval before visiting areas with an ethnic Serb population.

Hooded police holding automatic weapons and accompanied by armoured vehicles, were deployed from the Serbian border to Mitrovica to prevent several Serbian officials from entering Kosovo.

Police had to make their way through a hall where Djuric was attending a meeting in Mitrovica, using tear gas to disperse dozens of residents trying to intervene.

Nearly 20 years after the 1998-1999 war between Serb forces and Kosovo pro-independence ethnic Albanian guerillas, Mitrovica remains divided between ethnic Serbs, living north of the Ibar river, and ethnic Albanians, south of it.

International forces are still deployed in the town.

Today Kosovo, which has a population of 1.8 million, is home to some 120,000 ethnic Serbs.

The public meeting in Mitrovica was aimed at “internal dialogue” over the Kosovo issue, which is key to Belgrade’s bid to join the European Union.

Monday’s arrest is the most serious incident since Belgrade sent a train to Kosovo in January 2017 painted in the Serbian flag’s colours with a sign reading “Kosovo is Serbia” in multiple languages.

Pristina labelled it a “provocation,” but Vucic stopped it before the border.

The arrest and expulsion of Djuric took place just days after Vucic and Thaci met in Brussels on Friday to restart the EU-sponsored talks on normalisation of ties, deadlocked for the past two years.

About 115 countries have recognised Kosovo’s independence over the past 10 years. However, Serbia and dozens of other states, including its ally Russia, have not.

The 1998-1999 Kosovo conflict claimed 13,500 lives.