by Alessandro De Pascale
What the Kosovar police are showing to journalists is a real arsenal of war. According to the local authorities, it was found during searches of houses and vehicles around the Serb-majority village of Banjska. We are in Zvečan (465 inhabitants, according to the last census carried out in these enclaves in 2011), in northern Kosovo, a small Balkan country that declared independence from Serbia in 2008, with its capital Pristina (45 kilometres away and just an hour’s drive). On Sunday 24 September, an armed commando barricaded themselves in the small Orthodox monastery of Banjska. Shortly beforehand, they had blocked a bridge on the access road to Banjska by blocking two large agricultural lorries. When the police intervened, a gun battle ensued in which one policeman was killed and a second wounded.
The monastery was surrounded by Kosovar security forces and fired upon throughout the day on Sunday in an attempt to capture the commando, which authorities said consisted of 30 people. By the time the raid was declared over in the evening, four terrorists had been killed, six wounded and the same number captured, while ten were reported to have escaped. According to the Kosovar government, the latter had crossed the border. Kosovan Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla said six of them had been taken to a hospital in the town of Novi Pazar in southern Serbia. “We call on Belgrade to hand these men over to the Kosovo authorities as soon as possible so that justice can be done for their terrorist acts,” Svecla told reporters. For its part, Serbia continues to deny any involvement, saying the men were Kosovo Serbs.
To return to the confiscated weapons of war, lined up in a square for the usual photographic evidence, there are anti-tank rocket launchers, machine guns, sniper and assault rifles of the former Yugoslav army, mortars, hand grenades, land mines and drones. In such numbers that they filled the entire outdoor area as far as the eye could see, where they were lined up by type. Journalists were also shown 20 SUVs and an armoured truck which, according to the authorities, were used by the terrorist commando to carry out their operation. Three of these vehicles were also painted with the logo of KFOR (Kosovo Force), the international NATO peacekeeping mission that has been active since early 1999.
At the end of a massive three-month bombing campaign, the Atlantic Alliance intervened that year on the side of the Albanian Kosovars of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which until the day before had been declared a terrorist organisation by the UN. With a UN mandate, NATO thus took the field in the last Balkan war of independence (which began in February 1998) and has since deployed and maintained its troops in this small new nation, born from nothing out of the ashes of the former Yugoslavia. In Kosovo for 23 years, KFOR is currently the longest-running mission in the history of the Atlantic Alliance and still has 3,800 troops on the ground (it originally numbered as many as 50,000). In the belief that the situation is improving, NATO has long since opted for “smaller and more flexible contingents”. A choice that is now being called into question.
Since the day of the terrorist commando raid, the entire northern area of Kosovo (including the border with Serbia) has been militarised by the Kosovar police and border guards. Huge checkpoints stopped and inspected every incoming and outgoing vehicle, which had to pass through St Andrew’s crosses and stop at the spiked barrier. This was a very rare occurrence, as the Kosovar security forces are poorly visible in the areas inhabited by the Serb minority (some 120,000 people of the Orthodox faith in an Albanian majority country of 1.8 million people, mostly Muslims) and therefore rarely patrol the area. This task is normally in the hands of NATO troops (the Italian contingent also includes the Carabinieri, with military police duties). In these Serb-majority municipalities, which have been part of the Community Assembly of Kosovo and Metohija since 2008, the last local elections in May were deserted, while armed citizens often set up roadblocks and barricades precisely to prevent access to the police and customs officers of the central government in Pristina. Even the neighbouring border with Serbia is more than porous.
Sunday’s episode is “one of the worst since independence was proclaimed in 2008”, according to one of our sources, who requested anonymity because he still works for the European civilian mission EULEX, the largest ever launched under the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), which has been active in Kosovo since that year to support the country’s fledgling institutions. “This clash comes after months of rising tensions, but above all in the midst of a stalemate in talks between the Pristina and Serbian governments, which the US and EU have been promoting since 2012,” the EULEX official added. Kosovo’s independence has so far been recognised by around 100 nations (including the US and most Western countries), but has always been rejected by Serbia (as well as Russia, China and five EU members), preventing Pristina from gaining a seat at the UN. The areas inhabited by the Serbian minority are de facto enclaves of Serbia, where the inscriptions are in Cyrillic, the currency is the dinar (instead of the euro, the national currency, although Kosovo is obviously not part of the eurozone), and vehicles circulate without number plates as a sign of protest against the use of Kosovan plates flying the flag of a country they do not recognise.
Both the European Union and NATO are watching the situation with attention and concern. The Atlantic alliance is likely to increase the number of troops on the ground. “Any spark could reignite a conflict between the two sides,” says the EULEX official, worried. On Monday, as a day of national mourning was declared in Kosovo, EU leaders (joined by US Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Gabriel Escobar) met in Brussels to discuss next steps and try to calm tensions. “Efforts to normalise relations between the two countries through dialogue in Brussels have long since hit a dead end,” our source continues. “Both Belgrade and Pristina want to join the European Union, but the EU demands normalisation of their relations. Last month, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, both nationalists, agreed to formulate an 11-point European plan. But despite the fact that it is a much less ambitious text than the one initially proposed by the EU, Kosovo has asked for more flexibility in its implementation, while Serbia has refused to even sign it,’ the EULEX official adds.
The European Union’s plan is for the two countries to maintain good neighbourly relations and recognise each other’s official documents and national symbols while keeping Pristina out of the UN (a possibility that would be ruled out anyway by the veto that Russia has already promised to use in the Security Council) and other international organisations. But while Kosovo’s Prime Minister Kurti bluntly accused Serbia of funding and sending armed men into his country after Sunday’s events, Serbian President Vucic responded by denying the accusation: “You can kill us all, but Serbia will never recognise the independence of Kosovo, that monstrous creation you made by bombing our country,” referring to the 1999 NATO intervention that led to the birth of this small Balkan country of just 10. 887 km² (the size of Abruzzo), with little industry and where crime and corruption are rampant.
To learn more, read our Kosovo conflict factsheet
On the cover photo, the Swedish contingent of the NATO-KFOR mission at Camp Victoria, Pristina (Kosovo) © Jeppe Gustafsson/Shutterstock.com