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Kosovo accuses Serbia of direct involvement in deadly clashes and investigates possible Russian role

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Kosovo police officers secure the area outside the Banjska monastery in the village of Banjska, Kosovo on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. Police on Wednesday allowed media into the village of Banjska, where a daylong shootout between armed Serbs and Kosovar police on Sunday left one officer and three gunmen dead. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovo’s inside minister on Thursday accused Serbia of direct involvement in weekend clashes and was investigating the potential of Russian involvement within the violence that left 4 folks useless and additional strained relations between the previous wartime foes.

One Kosovo police officer and three gunmen had been killed in Sunday’s shootout between Serb insurgents and Kosovo police. Eight folks had been initially arrested, however 4 of them have been launched from custody due to a scarcity of proof.

Kosovo Inside Minister Xhelal Sveçla informed The Related Press in an interview that investigators had been proof linking Russia, an ally of Serbia, to the armed assault. Russian weapons, different gear and paperwork suggesting Russian involvement had been found after the daylong gunbattle, he mentioned.

In one of many worst confrontations since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, about 30 masked males opened fireplace on a police patrol close to the village of Banjska early Sunday. They then broke down the gates of a Serbian Orthodox monastery and barricaded themselves inside with the clergymen and visiting pilgrims.

The violence additional raised tensions within the Balkan area at a time when European Union and U.S. officers have been pushing for a deal that will normalize ties between Serbia and Kosovo. A NATO bombing marketing campaign on Serb positions in Kosovo and Serbia led to the tip of their 1998-99 battle.

“What we all know for positive is that they (the insurgents) got here from Serbia,” Sveçla mentioned. “A few of them are Kosovo Serbs, who’ve twin citizenship, Kosovo and Serbian citizenship, that, by our intelligence info, had been educated in camps in Serbia.”

“We discovered some paperwork which lead us to a suspicion that there have been people coming from Russia too,” he mentioned. “For the gear, we have now proof, however for the folks we nonetheless have solely suspicion.”

There are fears within the West that Russia, appearing via Serbia, could wish to destabilize the Balkans and shift at the very least a few of the consideration from Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russia has voiced assist for Serbia over the clashes, blaming the West for allegedly failing to guard Kosovo Serbs.

Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić has denied claims that Serbia was concerned within the conflict, saying the gunmen had been native Kosovo Serbs “who now not wish to face up to the phobia” of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian authorities. Vučić’s statements have portrayed the gunmen as heroes, and a nationwide day of mourning was held for the three killed Serbs in each Serbia and northern Kosovo the place they signify a majority.

After a gathering on Thursday with Danish Overseas Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, Vučić described the scenario as “essentially the most difficult and harmful up to now,” blaming the tensions on the insurance policies of Kosovo’s authorities and urging worldwide assist to guard ethnic Serbs.

Serbia’s chief negotiator with Kosovo, Petar Petković, demanded an impartial investigation into the killing of the three Serb gunmen, saying they had been “brutally” executed after surrendering to Kosovo police. He mentioned that Belgrade has witnesses and proof, together with pictures, however didn’t make them public.

Sveçla mentioned that primarily based on the gathered proof and drone footage, a few of the assailants, who he known as “terrorists,” wore face masks all through the operation.

“Even the members of the group who had been arrested didn’t know who they had been,” he mentioned. “So they’re both excessive officers from the safety sector of Serbia or they is likely to be instantly coming from Russia itself.”

The inside minister mentioned that the goal of the operation seemed to be the seizure of northern Kosovo with the final word aim of seceding from the remainder of the nation.

“They’d a 100 extra uniforms,” Sveçla mentioned. “They had been planning to recruit extra folks inside (the communities) the place Serbs dwell … Kosovo establishments must cope with the few hundred terrorists in a state of affairs which they deliberate.”

He mentioned that judging from a big cache of weapons discovered on the scene of the conflict, the attackers deliberate to closely arm at the very least a few hundred folks.

“Uniforms, private armor, Kalashnikovs, sniper rifles, pistols. All this tells us there was gear for a few hundred folks along with logistics. It was gear and weapons for a complete battalion,” he mentioned.

The hazard of a brand new insurgency isn’t over, Sveçla mentioned.

“We don’t have clashes, however we have now info that coaching of those terrorists continues in Serbia,” he mentioned. “There are nonetheless folks in Kosovo who’re a part of this group.”

Serbia and Kosovo, a former province belonging to Belgrade, have been at odds for many years. Their 1998-99 battle left greater than 10,000 folks useless, largely Kosovo Albanians. Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008, however Serbia has refused to acknowledge the transfer.

The EU, with the backing of the U.S., has been brokering negotiations between the 2 sides. In February, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Vučić gave their approval to a 10-point EU plan for normalizing relations, however the two leaders have since distanced themselves from the settlement.

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Dusan Stojanovic and Jovana Gec contributed to this report from Belgrade, Serbia.

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