NATO-led troops guard town hall in northern Kosovo
PHOTO CAPTION: U.S. Kosovo Force (KFOR) soldiers, under NATO, stand guard near a municipal office in Leposavic, Kosovo May 31, 2023. REUTERS/Fatos Bytyci
By Fatos Bytyci
LEPOSAVIC, Kosovo (Reuters) - NATO peacekeepers stood behind a razor-wire barrier that prevented the approach of protesters outside a municipal hall in ethnically divided northern Kosovo, where days of unrest have prompted NATO to send additional troops to stave off violence.
Following clashes on Monday in Zvecan, another northern town, during which 30 NATO troops and 52 ethnic Serbian protesters were hurt, NATO said it would send 700 more troops to Kosovo to boost its 4,000-strong mission. It was not clear when the soldiers would arrive.
Polish soldiers of NATO stood guard at the town hall in Zvecan on Wednesday, as demonstrators on the other side of the fence unfurled a large Serbian flag to applause and whistles.
Regional unrest has intensified following April elections that the ethnic Serbs boycotted, narrowing the turnout to 3.5% and leaving victory in four Serb-majority Kosovan mayoralties to ethnic Albanian candidates.
Those ethnic Albanian mayors were then installed last week, a decision that spurred rebuke of Pristina by the U.S. and its allies on Friday.
The ethnic Albanian mayor of Leposavic, another northern Kosovo town, remained in the municipal building on Wednesday after entering it amid Serb demonstrations on Monday. He couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
"While they may have been legally elected, we do not consider their election legitimate," Dragan, an ethnic Serb who lives in Leposavic, told Reuters on Wednesday.
"We're asking what the international community is asking – for them to be removed from here peacefully," he said.
The United States and allies have rebuked Kosovo for escalating tensions with Serbia, saying the use of force to install mayors in ethnic Serb areas of Kosovo undermined efforts to improve troubled bilateral relations.
That view was achoed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who said on Wednesday the unrest "has increased sharply since ethnic Albanian mayors took office."
Speaking at a briefing in Bratislava, Macron said he hoped to meet German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia later this week for discussions on the matter.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti on Wednesday blamed Belgrade for being behind protests in the north in order to destabilise Kosovo.
Separately, Kosovo Olympic authorities asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to open disciplinary proceedings against Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic, accusing the Serbian of stirring up political tension with remarks he made at the French Open.
Djokovic wrote "Kosovo is the heart of Serbia" on a camera lens on Monday, the day NATO troops and Serbians were hurt in clashes in Zvecan, where his father father grew up.
Kosovo tennis federation chief Jeton Hadergjonaj said despite a general message against violence, Djokovic's remark on Kosovo being the "heart of Serbia" could ramp up tensions between Serbia and Kosovo.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic placed his army on full combat alert and ordered units to move closer to the border.
Northern Kosovo's majority Serbs have never accepted Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, and consider Belgrade their capital more than two decades after the Kosovo Albanian uprising against repressive Serbian rule.
Ethnic Albanians make up more than 90% of the population in Kosovo as a whole, but northern Serbs have long demanded the implementation of an EU-brokered 2013 deal for the creation of an association of autonomous municipalities in their area.
Peacekeeping troops were deployed in Kosovo in 1999 after NATO bombing drove Serbia's police and army out of its former province.
(Reporting by Fatos Bytici and Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Bernadette Baum)