In-depth | North

An attack following long-standing tensions in the north

By - 25.09.2023

The situation in the north worsens, the dialogue stalls again.

The last Sunday of September started with a flood of news reports from the north of Kosovo. The long-standing tensions in the four Serb-majority municipalities escalated into an armed attack on the Kosovo Police (KP), which resulted in a fatality.

On the morning of September 24, Sergeant Afrim Bunjaku was killed, one officer received a gunshot wound and another received other injuries in an attack carried out by members of roughly 30-strong group of heavily armed men in the village of Banjska near Zvečan.

The police have stated that the border police’s rapid intervention unit noticed two trucks without license plates positioned on a bridge blocking access to the village.

Three units from the police station in Zvečan headed towards the trucks where they encountered resistance from the armed group, who fired at them with firearms, hand grenades and military-grade explosives.

An announcement by the Eparchy of Raška-Prizren confirmed that the group had withdrawn to the Banjska Monastery. In addition to condemning the attack on the KP, the Eparchy said that a group of masked and armed individuals in an armored truck had broken through the monastery gate. Inside the monastery was a group of pilgrims from Novi Sad and a priest.

The police surrounded the monastery as the gunfire continued throughout the day. A police press release on Sunday evening stated that they killed three gunmen and arrested two others. Another police officer was also injured.

The media reported that the rest of the group managed to escape, although the police have not confirmed this. The police later announced that they arrested four people suspected of having connections with the attack at a vehicle check-point. During the arrest, they found radio communications equipment, a significant quantity of weapons, ammunition and other equipment.

Throughout Sunday, state leaders and representatives of the international community issued statements condemning the attack.

Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti said that the attack was carried out by a mercenary structure, which is supported politically, financially and logistically by Belgrade.” President of Kosovo Vjosa Osmani called it an “orchestrated, planned and executed attack” on Kosovo and its sovereignty carried out by criminal gangs, organized by Serbia.

The U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo also referred to these as “orchestrated attacks,” while the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, described it as an “ugly and cowardly terrorist attack against the Kosovo Police.” Miroslav Lajčák, the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Prishtina Dialogue, condemned the attack and called for Kosovo and Serbia to return to the dialogue immediately.

In a press conference on Sunday night, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić blamed Prime Minister Kurti for the “chaos” in Kosovo and claimed that the attack was carried out by local Serbs who “did not want to endure Kurti’s terror.”

According to the Kosovo police, during their search of residential buildings and vehicles that were used by the group, a “gun arsenal” was found. In addition to military weapons such as grenades, machine guns and Kalashnikovs, they found uniforms and logistical equipment. A press release issued by the Special Prosecutor’s Office stated that the arrested individuals are in 48-hour detention and have been charged with serious offenses against the constitutional order and security of Kosovo, preparation of terrorist acts or criminal offenses against the constitutional order and control or possession of unauthorized weapons.

The situation is unfolding with a lack of information about how the weapons entered Kosovo and the identities of the attackers.

On Monday, September 25, Kosovo declared a day of mourning in honor of Sergeant Bunjaku.

Since the publication of this story on Monday, September 25, there have been new developments. Kosovo police have arrested several new suspects as well as showcasing a large amount of evidence left behind by the armed group. Among the evidence is a massive amount of military-grade weaponry and supplies and several vehicles that Kurti claims has a total value of over 5 million euros.

The police also shared video footage taken by a drone that showed the armed group taking refuge in the Banjska Monastery and fleeing into the hills above. Minister of Internal Affairs Sveçla announced that the vice president of the Kosovo Serb political party Srpska Lista Milan Radoičić was among the group and can be seen in the video footage. Radoičić has been sanctioned by the U.S. and the U.K. and fled from Kosovo in February 2022.

Meanwhile, the Srpska Lista has declared three days of mourning for the slain attackers and the Serbian government has declared one day of mourning.

Sunday’s events occurred within a context of ongoing tensions in the north of Kosovo, which have escalated since November 2022.

Tensions rise, the Belgrade-Prishtina dialogue stalls

The dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia has stalled since the violent protests in the three Serb-majority municipalities in the north of Kosovo — Zvečan, Leposavić and Zubin Potok — in May of this year when protesters injured KFOR soldiers and attacked journalists.

The protests were preceded by local elections held on April 23 in Zvečan, Leposavić, Zubin Potok and North Mitrovica. In these elections, which were widely boycotted by local Serbs, about 3% of the 45,095 eligible citizens voted. Srpska Lista, the largest party of Kosovo Serbs, which is supported by the government of Serbia and has governed these municipalities since 2013, did not run in the election.

On April 23, 2023, Serb and Albanian voters could mainly choose between candidates from Albanian parties. Out of 10 mayoral candidates, only one was from the Serbian community.

On May 26, a day after the four newly elected mayors took the oath of office, they accessed the municipal buildings under the protection of a police escort due to the presence of Serbian protesters. The police were met with resistance from Serbs. Five policemen were injured during the clashes with the protesters, who threw stones at the police. The police responded with stun grenades and tear gas.

The mayors’ entry into municipal facilities with police assistance was condemned by the international community, who blamed the government of Kosovo for not coordinating with them. They described it as “forced entry” and asked the government not to escalate the situation. On May 27, Kurti said that they are aware and understood the concerns raised by the international community, but that any other approach would have been a breach of the government’s constitutional obligations.

The international community’s reaction divided public debate. One side was critical of Kurti’s government for not coordinating their actions with the international community and for not fulfilling their demands, which could lead to a breakdown in relations, especially with the U.S. The other side was critical of the international community for one-sided criticism of the Kosovo government while not using the same harsh language or warnings of sanctions against Serbia.

The protests continued for several weeks. On May 29, dozens of KFOR members were injured in Zvečan. After KFOR’s calls for protesters to disperse were met with refusal, protesters threw stones, stun grenades and Molotov cocktails at KFOR soldiers. Shots were also heard. During the protests, which lasted several weeks, dozens of journalists were attacked and their cars vandalized.

The EU declared Kosovo responsible for the developments in May, due to the government’s decision to send the mayors to their municipal facilities. As a solution, the EU requested that the mayors work from alternative facilities and for the dialogue to resume.

In response to the government of Kosovo not adhering to these requirements, the EU imposed punitive measures against Kosovo at the end of June. Work on the Stabilization-Association Agreement and the presence of Kosovo representatives in high-level organizations was temporarily suspended. Bilateral visits were also put on hold.

Events took an unexpected turn on June 14. According to the government of Kosovo, three Kosovar police officers “were kidnapped inside the territory of Kosovo.” The KP reported they suspected the officers were kidnapped by Serbian gendarmerie during a patrol on Kosovo’s northern border in Bare near Leposavić. 

The Serbian government claimed that the police officers were arrested in Serbia. The Serbian authorities charged the three policemen with the production, holding, possession and illegal trafficking of weapons and explosives.

They were detained on June 16, but the Serbian authorities released them on June 26. 

On July 10, the EU Special Representative Lajčák and the Kosovar Deputy Prime Minister Besnik Bislimi reached an agreement in Bratislava on the de-escalation of the situation in the north.

The agreement required the immediate withdrawal of 25% of the police from and around municipal buildings in the north, the organization of snap elections at the end of the summer and the return to dialogue for the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. The Kosovo government withdrew 25% of the police force immediately. On August 4, another 25% of the police force were withdrawn after assessing the situation with the KP, EULEX and KFOR, as required in the agreement.

Since March, when Kurti and Vučić agreed on the European Plan and the Plan for its Implementation, also known as the Ohrid Agreement, which included the creation of the Association of Municipalities with a Serbian majority, they have met twice as part of the dialogue. Both meetings have not achieved any results.

The last meeting, on September 14, was unsuccessful. In an interview for the Guardian, Kurti said that the dialogue with Serbia has reached a dead end since the EU’s special envoy for dialogue has lost his neutrality.

During this meeting, both Kurti and the EU presented proposals for the implementation of the Ohrid Agreement. Kurti presented a “sequenced roadmap” containing 19 actions to address the European Plan’s articles. The establishment of the Association came in the last six points, although the proposal foresaw the steps for its establishment among other actions that addressed the political aspects between Kosovo and Serbia, such as Serbia’s de facto recognition of Kosovo.

According to Radio Free Europe, the EU proposal which Kurti rejected but Vučić accepted mentions that the implementation would start with “opening the negotiation process for the self-management of the Serbs in Kosovo.” 

EU Proposal

- Serbia will no longer insist on the use of asterisks and footnotes, or the participation of UNMIK in regional forums.

- Negotiations on the "Statute of self-management instruments for Kosovo Serbs" will be concluded.

- The parties should not interfere in each other's internal affairs and refrain from any form of violence or incitement of violence.

- The "instruments of self-management for Kosovo Serbs" would be established and the parallel structures administered by Serbia in Kosovo and their transformation under the instruments of self-management would be terminated.

- This would be followed by the recognition of state documents and symbols.

- Both parties should create an implementation plan to address previously made agreements.

EU High Representative Borrell, who mediated the meeting along with Lajčák, said that Kurti insisted on formalizing Serbia’s de facto recognition of Kosovo, while Vučić insisted on establishing the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities.

In separate media conferences, Kurti and Vučić separately blamed each other for the lack of results from the meeting. Kurti also said that “Serbia’s conditions” for the formation of the Association “has turned into the position of EU emissaries.” Kurti accused Lajčák of positioning himself against Kosovo.

On September 18, during a press conference in Prishtina, Kurti said that in the last round of dialogue, Lajčák “was clearly positioned against Kosovo in general, against the Agreement [towards the normalization of relations] in particular.”

The EU called these accusations baseless while U.S. State Department Representative Gabriel Escobar said that he is alarmed by the attacks on Lajčák.

“Lajčák will not leave. The dialogue will not go away. And I don’t think a country of a million and a half will convince the transatlantic community of 700 million to change its tactics. I think there should be a more pragmatic approach from the government of Kosovo,” said Escobar in an interview for Voice of America.

The international community, especially the U.S., has adopted a harsher tone towards the Kurti government since the tensions in May. Since then, the EU, individual EU countries and the U.S. have persistently requested that the government of Kosovo establish the Association and initiate new elections in the four Serb-majority municipalities in the north. 

The establishment of the Association is the most discussed part of the European Plan. It requires arrangements and guarantees to ensure an appropriate level of self-management for the Serb community in Kosovo, in accordance with previous agreements as determined by the mediator, the EU. If “self-management” is implemented according to previous agreements, it would have to be implemented according to the Brussels Agreement of 2013 and 2015, which calls for the establishment of the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities.

Reached after a preliminary deadlock in the dialogue, the Ohrid Agreement was widely seen as a move that would bring the two countries closer to a final agreement. However, it was not signed but only deemed approved based on Borell’s statement and was criticized for not including a system that would ensure both parties implement the agreement. To date, this agreement has largely not been implemented.

Feature Image: K2.0.