Kosovo’s Interior Minister Djelal Svechlja accused Serbia of direct intervention in the weekend clashes and said he was investigating possible Russian involvement in the violence that killed four people and further strained relations between the two countries, which fought each other at the end of The 90s, the Associated Press reports.
A Kosovo police officer and three gunmen were killed in Sunday’s shootout between Serbian gunmen and Kosovo police. Eight people were initially arrested, but four of them were later released for lack of evidence.
Kosovo Interior Minister Djelal Svechlia said in an interview with the AP that investigators are looking into evidence linking Serbia’s ally Russia to the armed attack. Russian weapons, other equipment and documents suggesting Russian involvement were found after the day-long firefight, he said.
Kosovo police discovered a new arsenal of weapons
In one of the worst confrontations since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, about 30 gunmen opened fire on a police patrol near the village of Banska early Sunday morning. They then stormed a Serbian Orthodox monastery and barricaded themselves there among priests and visitors.
The violence further heightened tensions in the Balkan region at a time when representatives of the European Union and the United States are pushing for an agreement to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo. NATO bombings against Serbian positions in Kosovo and Serbia ended the war between Belgrade and Pristina in 1998-99, the agency recalled.
“What we know for sure is that they (the rebels) came from Serbia,” Svechlia said: “Some of them are Kosovo Serbs who have dual citizenship – Kosovo and Serbia, who, according to our intelligence, were trained in camps in Serbia”.
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“We found some documents that raised the suspicion that there were also persons coming from Russia,” he added. “For the equipment we have evidence, but for the people for now we only have suspicions”.
There are concerns in the West that Russia, acting through Serbia, may want to destabilize the Balkans and at least partially divert attention from Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the AP points out. Russia has expressed support for Serbia over the clashes, accusing the West of failing to protect Kosovo Serbs.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic rejected claims that Serbia was involved in the clashes, saying the gunmen were local Kosovo Serbs “who no longer want to endure the terror” of ethnic Albanian authorities in Kosovo. Vucic’s statements painted the gunmen as heroes. A day of national mourning was declared for the three slain Serbs in both Serbia and northern Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs are the majority.
Svechlia said that based on the evidence collected and drone photos, it was clear that some of the attackers, who he called “terrorists”, were wearing masks during the operation.
“Even the members of the group who were arrested did not know who they were,” he added. “So they are either high-ranking representatives from the security sector in Serbia or maybe they come directly from Russia.”
The interior minister said the aim of the operation appeared to be to capture northern Kosovo with the intention of separating it from the rest of the country.
“They had 100 more uniforms,” Svechlia said: “They planned to recruit more people among the communities where Serbs live … Kosovo institutions would have faced several hundred terrorists in the scenario that was planned.”
He pointed out that judging by the large cache of weapons found at the site of the clashes, the attackers planned to heavily arm at least several hundred people.
“Uniforms, personal body armor, Kalashnikov assault rifles, sniper rifles, pistols. All this shows us that there was equipment for several hundred people along with logistics. There was equipment and weapons for an entire battalion,” noted the Kosovo minister.
According to him, the danger of a new rebellion has not passed.
“We have no clashes, but we have information that the training of these terrorists continues in Serbia,” Svechlia pointed out: “There are still people in Kosovo who are part of this group.”
Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008, but Serbia has refused to recognize the independence of its former region, with which it has been at loggerheads for decades. The war between them in 1998-99 claimed the lives of over 10,000 people, mostly Kosovo Albanians.
The EU, with the support of the US, is mediating negotiations between the two countries. In February, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic agreed to a 10-point EU plan to normalize relations, but the two leaders have since distanced themselves from the agreement.
Source: BTA, Vanya Nakova