Nato is deploying reserves to reinforce the existing Kosovo Force (KFOR) after clashes in northern Kosovo on May 29, the Joint Forces Command (JFC) Naples said in a statement published on Twitter on May 30.
The previous day, Kosovan police and Nato-led KFOR forces used tear gas and shock bombs to disperse ethnic Serbs who had gathered in front of the Zvecan municipality building in northern Kosovo.
Western diplomats have urged both Pristina and Belgrade to de-escalate the situation, which remained tense on May 30. They also signalled a tougher line on both sides, with US Ambassador to Kosovo Jeffrey Hovenier announcing that the Defender Europe 2023 military exercises in Kosovo have been cancelled.
Nato now plans to deploy an additional 700 troops to Kosovo, announced Nato spokesperson Oana Lungescu on Twitter.
"#Nato Secretary General @jensstoltenberg: we have decided to deploy within days 700 more troops to #Kosovo, and put additional forces on higher readiness. These are prudent steps, ensuring @NATO_KFOR has the forces & capabilities it needs to fulfil its UN mandate,” Lungescu’s statement said.
“In response to recent unrest and the injury of 30 members of Nato’s KFOR, Nato has directed the deployment of the Operational Reserve Force (ORF) for the Western Balkans which was on a seven-day readiness-to-deploy status. An additional multi-national battalion of reserve forces has been ordered to decrease their readiness-to-deploy status from 14 to 7 days in order to be ready to reinforce KFOR if necessary,” said a statement from the JFC.
Installation of new mayors sparks protest
Protests initially broke out on May 26, when Kosovan Serbs attempted to block newly elected ethnic Albanian mayors from entering municipal buildings in three Serb-majority municipalities: Zvecan, Leposavic and Zubin Potok.
Serbs walked out of Kosovan state and local government institutions last year, and boycotted the elections of new mayors and other officials in April. This resulted in ethnic Albanian mayors being elected for the first time in majority Serb districts. Their election is viewed as illegitimate by the Serb population.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic ordered the Serbian army to raise combat readiness to the highest level on May 26 after tensions escalated in northern Kosovo.
The situation worsened in Zvecan on May 29, where violent clashes broke out between protesters and security forces.
Nato’s KFOR said on May 30 that 30 peacekeepers had been injured in the "unprovoked violence” in Zvecan. Soldiers from the Italian and Hungarian contingents “sustained multiple injuries, including fractures and burns from improvised explosive incendiary devices”.
The Kosovan police said on May 30 that protests are ongoing in the municipalities of Leposavic, Zubin Potok and Zvecan, and the situation is "calm but delicate”.
Diplomats appeal for calm
Diplomats from EU countries and the US have urged both sides to de-escalate the situation.
While condemning the violence by protesters, US Ambassador Jeffrey Hovenier also criticised the Kosovan authorities for aggravating the situation by insisting on installing the new mayors in municipal buildings.
Hovenier told journalists in Pristina that the government’s decision to forcibly install the new mayors “has had a negative impact on Kosovo's reputation and has set back efforts to normalise relations between Kosovo and Serbia," said Hovenier, reported RTK.
He said the Kosovan government had not co-ordinated its actions in the north of the country with the US, and has suffered its first consequence: the cancellation of the Defender Europe 2023 military exercises in Kosovo.
"Today there was no activity for 'Defender Europe '23' and there won't be any. For Kosovo, those exercises have come to an end," Hovenier said.
"We have asked [Kosovan Prime Minister Albin] Kurti to take steps towards reducing tensions in the north. He has not responded to these requests and we are analysing what our next actions will be," Hovenier added.
Hovenier said that the United States has two requests for the Government of Kosovo: not to insist that mayors work from municipal buildings and to withdraw police officers from the three municipal buildings in the north.
KFOR Mission Commander Major General Angelo Michele Ristuccia also criticised both sides.
“Both parties need to take full responsibility for what happened and prevent any further escalation, rather than hide behind false narratives,” he said in a statement.
EU High Representative Josep Borrell commented on the situation on May 30, saying the EU “condemns in the strongest terms the violence in the north of Kosovo”.
“I have had contacts with Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti – again this morning – and with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, overnight. I asked both parties to urgently take measures to de-escalate tensions immediately and unconditionally. And any further unilateral action has to be avoided and calm be restored,” said a statement from Borrell.
“As the first step, I expect Kosovo authorities to suspend police operations focusing on the municipal buildings in the north of Kosovo, and the violent protesters to stand down. I will continue engaging with the two leaders.”
Borrel said he was working on an urgent high-level dialogue meeting supported by EU Special Representative Miroslav Lajčák.
Meanwhile, EEAS Deputy Secretary General for peace, security and defence, Charles Fries, has travelled to Kosovo to report on the situation on the ground.
Western diplomats had sought to arrange a meeting between Kurti and Vucic in Bratislava, where the two leaders were expected to take part in the Globsec global security conference.
However, both turned down the invitation and Vucic cancelled his trip to Bratislava.
On May 30, he met with the ambassadors of the Quint countries (France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US), the head of the EU delegation in Serbia, as well as the ambassadors of China, Russia and Finland.
"I hope you will be able to reason with Kurti to withdraw his forces and personal mayors from the North," Vucic told Quint diplomats, according to a statement from the presidency.
Meanwhile, top Kosovan politicians used strong language to condemn the protesters.
Kurti said in a tweet that he had spoken to the UK’s special envoy to the Western Balkans, Stuart Peach, about the “outrageous attacks on police, KFOR & journalists”, describing them as “fascist violence”.
Foreign Minister Donika Gervalla-Schwarz wrote of attacks on KFOR by “violent extremists directed by the command and control of Vucic's secret service”. “This is not about the legitimate rights of minorities. It’s about violence & destabilisation. The West needs tell Vucic that this has to stop. Now,” she tweeted.