Nato has said it will send 700 extra troops to try to curb the violence in Kosovo a day after 30 alliance-led peacekeeping soldiers and more than 50 ethnic Serbian protesters were injured in clashes.
On Monday, Nato peacekeepers in riot gear had secured a town hall in the town of Zvecan as the situation remained tense.
Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, had previously put the army on the highest level of combat alert, and on Tuesday, Moscow accused the west of “blaming” Serbs it said had been “driven to despair”.
On Monday, the Nato-led Kosovo Force (Kfor) soldiers blocked a group of ethnic Serbian demonstrators from entering the area. The protesters had boycotted last month’s elections in at least three northern towns in the area where they are in a majority, allowing ethnic Albanians to take control of local councils despite a minuscule turnout of less than 3.5% of voters – a move that led the US and its allies to rebuke Kosovo’s leaders on Friday.
Many Serbs are demanding the withdrawal of Kosovo police forces, as well as the ethnic Albanian mayors they do not consider their true representatives.
Tensions flared after the Serbian protesters tried to force their way into the Zvecan municipal building but were repelled by teargas fired by Kosovan police.
While at first trying to separate protesters from the police, Kfor soldiers later started to disperse the crowd using shields and batons. Protesters responded by hurling rocks, bottles and molotov cocktails at the soldiers.
Eleven Italians were among the injured Kfor peacekeeping troops, three of them in a “serious but not life-threatening condition”, official sources said. Nineteen wounded soldiers belonged to a Hungarian Kfor contingent, four of whom needed hospital treatment for shrapnel injuries and one needed to be operated on. “None of them is in a life-threatening condition,” the Hungarian ambassador to Pristina, József Bencze, said. About 52 Serbian protesters were injured.
In response to the incident, the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said it would send about 700 additional soldiers to try to curb the violence, but it was unclear when this would happen.
“We have decided to deploy 700 more troops from the operational reserve force for western Balkans and to put an additional battalion of reserve forces on high alertness so they can also be deployed if needed,” Stoltenberg told a press conference in Oslo on Tuesday.
The area’s majority Serbs have never accepted Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, and still 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, 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.
Monday’s incident sparked a row across the international community, with the Nato-led peacekeeping mission to Kosovo condemning what have been described as “unprovoked attacks”.
“While countering the most active fringes of the crowd, several soldiers of the Italian and Hungarian Kfor contingent were the subject of unprovoked attacks and sustained trauma wounds with fractures and burns due to the explosion of incendiary devices,” it said.
The Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, on Monday called the attacks “unacceptable and irresponsible”.
‘‘We will not tolerate further attacks,” she said, calling on all parties involved to take “an immediate step back in order to contribute to the easing of tensions”.
“The Italian government is totally committed to peace and stability in the western Balkans and we will continue to work with our allies,” Meloni added.
On Tuesday, Kosovo police said in a statement that the situation was “fragile, but calm”.
A Kosovo police source, who asked not to be named, told Reuters bulldozers were heading north, ready to remove any barricades set up by Serbs.
Kosovo authorities have blamed Vučić for destabilising Kosovo, while the Serbian president responded by blaming Kosovo authorities for causing problems by installing new mayors.
In a statement after meeting ambassadors of the Quint group – the US, Italy, France, Germany and Britain – in Belgrade, Vučić said he had asked that Albanian mayors be removed from their offices in the north, while he placed his army on high alert last week when tensions began to flare.
Russia urged the west to stop blaming Serbs for the incident and said “decisive steps” were needed to de-escalate tensions.
“We call on the west to finally silence its false propaganda and stop blaming incidents in Kosovo on Serbs driven to despair, who are peaceful, unarmed, trying to defend their legitimate rights and freedoms,” Russia’s foreign ministry said.
After Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, Belgrade and its key allies, Beijing and Moscow, refused to recognise it, in effect preventing Kosovo from having a seat at the UN.