Europe’s largest economies and the U.S. slammed Kosovo for escalating tensions with Serbia after Pristina used force to secure access to municipal buildings in the north of the Balkan country near the Serbian border.
Police used tear gas in the town of Zvecan to disband a crowd of ethnic Serbs on Friday who were trying to block a newly elected Albanian mayor from entering his office building.
The violence triggered an immediate backlash from Serbia, whose President Aleksandr Vučić placed his army on full combat alert and told military units to move closer to the border with Kosovo.
Washington was quick to condemn Pristina for using violence and worsening relations with Serbia. Tensions between the two countries persist since the brutal Balkan war in the late 1990s after Kosovo’s bid to break away from Serbia. Kosovo secured its independence in 2008, but many Serbs in the northern regions of the country still see Belgrade as their home capital, complicating relations between the neighboring countries.
“The United States strongly condemns the actions by the government of Kosovo to access municipal buildings in the north of Kosovo by force, actions it took against the advice of the United States and Kosovo’s European partners,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
“These actions have sharply and unnecessarily escalated tensions, undermining our efforts to help normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia and will have consequences for our bilateral relations with Kosovo,” he continued. “We call on Prime Minister Albin Kurti to reverse course and on all sides to refrain from any further actions that will inflame tensions and promote conflict.”
The U.S. also issued a joint statement with France, Italy, Germany and the U.K., rebuking the actions of Kosovo’s authorities. They also expressed concern over Serbia’s decision to “raise the level of readiness of its armed forces at the border with Kosovo and call all parties for maximum restraint, avoiding inflammatory rhetoric.”
Picketers in Zvecan were protesting the outcome of a ballot in April that the Kosovo Serb majority boycotted in four northern municipalities by the Serbian border because their calls for more autonomy were ignored.
Local Serbs refuse to work with the four new mayors, who hail from ethnic Albanian parties. Kosovo police accused ethnic Serbs of throwing rocks and attacking four of their vehicles and that gunfire was also heard, according to Reuters.
NATO urged talks between the two sides to sort out the issue. “We urge the institutions in Kosovo to de-escalate immediately & call on all parties to resolve the situation through dialogue,” Oana Lungescu, a spokesperson for the defense alliance, said in a tweet. NATO’s Kosovo Force “remains vigilant & will ensure a safe & secure environment,” she added.