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Kosovo police enter northern village after shootout with gunmen killed four

By Fatos Bytyci

JOSEVIK, Kosovo (Reuters) – Kosovar police units in armoured vehicles moved in to secure and search a village in north Kosovo on Monday, a day after four people were killed in a shootout between police and ethnic Serb gunmen in the restive region.

The gunmen stormed the village of Banjska on Sunday, battling police and barricading themselves into a Serbian Orthodox monastery. Police retook the monastery late on Sunday, after three attackers and one police officer were killed.

Armed police searched houses in the village on Monday, looking for any gunmen who had not fled, a police source told Reuters. The village remained sealed off to journalists on Monday morning.

On Monday the United States condemned attacks on police and urged the governments of Kosovo, a former Serbian province with a 90% ethnic Albanian majority, and Serbia to defuse tensions.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was monitoring the “tense and potentially dangerous” situation in Kosovo.

Although ethnic Albanians comprise the great majority of Kosovo’s 1.8 million people, some 50,000 Serbs in its north reject Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence and regard Belgrade as their capital, more than two decades after a Kosovo Albanian guerrilla uprising against Serbian rule.

“From yesterday, nothing can be the same anymore,” Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said at a ceremony honouring the Kosovo police officer who was killed in the incident.

“Afrim Bunjaku was killed during an attack on Kosovo policemen and on our state itself by a group of heavily armed and heavily equipped, professionally trained and planned, politically supported, materially financed and logistically supported by Serbia,” Kurti said.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has denied Kurti’s allegations that Belgrade orchestrated the attack. He accuses Kurti of inciting violence by blocking the creation of an association of Serb municipalities to give more autonomy to Serbs – approved by an earlier Kosovo government in 2013 – and by launching frequent police raids in the north.

“We call on the governments of Kosovo and Serbia to refrain from any actions or rhetoric which could  further inflame tensions,” U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a statement.  

Vucic on Monday had talks with Russian Ambassador Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko. Russia, Serbia’s traditional ally, also does not recognise Kosovo’s statehood and vetoed its bid to become a member of the United Nations.

“I have informed Botsan-Kharchenko that a brutal ethnic cleansing with the help of the international community is being conducted by Albin Kurti,” Vucic wrote on his Instagram page.

Tensions have been running high since clashes in northern Kosovo in May when more than 90 NATO peacekeeping soldiers and some 50 Serb protesters were injured in northern Kosovo.

Serbs have long demanded the implementation of a European Union-brokered deal a decade ago to create the association of autonomous municipalities. Kurti has said such a move would effectively partition Kosovo along ethnic lines.

(Reporting by Fatos Bytyvi; additional reporting Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; writing by Ivana Sekularac; editing by Edmund Blair and Mark Heinrich)


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