The NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force on Monday said that 25 of its troops, including 11 from Italy, were injured in the clashes with ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo who were trying to take over the offices of one of the municipalities where ethnic Albanian mayors took up their posts last week.
Three are in critical condition but none of the injuries are life-threatening.
“NATO strongly condemns the unprovoked attacks against KFOR troops in northern Kosovo, which have led to a number of them being injured. Such attacks are totally unacceptable. Violence must stop immediately” a statement by NATO said.
A spokesperson for the US-led alliance called on all sides to refrain from inflaming tensions and instead seek dialogue.
The Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, also expressed her “strongest condemnation of the attack on the KFOR mission”.
“What is happening is unacceptable and irresponsible. We will not tolerate further attacks on KFOR. It is essential to avoid further unilateral actions by the Kosovan authorities and that all parties involved immediately take a step back, contributing to the easing of tensions,” Meloni said on Twitter.
Zvecan, Leposavic, Zubin Potok and Mitrovica, four municipalities in the north, held early elections last month.
The votes were largely boycotted by ethnic Serbs, who form the majority in those areas. Only ethnic Albanian or other smaller minority representatives were elected to the mayoral posts and assemblies.
KFOR had tried to disperse demonstrators in front of Zvecan town hall, 45 kilometres north of the capital, Pristina, to protest the inauguration of the new mayor of the Albanian ethnicity.
In the afternoon, KFOR soldiers called on Serbs to clear the way for two vehicles from the Kosovar special police forces.
The soldiers then used tear gas and stun grenades to protect the Kosovar officers in the vehicles and disperse protesters, according to witnesses and local media.
The assembled Serbs responded by throwing rocks and other hard objects. One vehicle was burned, but there is no confirmation of any injured person yet.
Kosovo and Serbia have been foes for decades, with Belgrade refusing to recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty.
The conflict in Kosovo erupted in 1998 when separatist ethnic Albanians rebelled against Serbia’s rule, and Serbia responded with a brutal crackdown. About 13,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, died.
NATO’s military intervention in 1999 eventually forced Serbia to pull out of the territory. Washington and most EU countries have recognised Kosovo as an independent state, but Serbia, Russia and China haven’t.
The United States and the European Union have stepped up efforts to help solve the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, fearing further instability in Europe as Russia’s war rages in Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov considered the situation in Kosovo as “worrisome,” blaming the US and NATO for claiming dominance in that part of the world.
“A big ‘explosion’ is brewing in the centre of Europe, in the very place where, in 1999, NATO carried out aggression against Yugoslavia,” he said from Nairobi, Kenya.
The EU has made it clear to both Serbia and Kosovo that they must normalise relations if they’re to make any progress toward joining the bloc.
Last Friday ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo tried to block the newly elected ethnic Albanian officials from entering municipal buildings. Kosovo police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd and let the new officials into the offices.
More than a dozen Serbs and five Kosovar police officers were injured. Serbian troops on the border with Kosovo were put on high alert the same day.
The US and the EU condemned Kosovo’s government for using police to forcibly enter the municipal buildings.
At a rally Friday evening in Belgrade with his supporters, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said, “Serbia won’t sit idle the moment Serbs in northern Kosovo are attacked.”
However, any attempt by Serbia to send its troops over the border would mean a clash with NATO-led troops stationed there.