Serbia on Tuesday put its troops on full alert after heavily armed Kosovar police entered Serbian-dominated northern Kosovo, firing tear gas and arresting about two dozen people in what they called an anti-organized crime operation.
It was the latest flare-up in long-simmering tensions between Serbia and its former province, which declared independence from Belgrade in 2008 after a bloody 1998 to 1999 war that ended only with NATO intervention.
Serbians make up 90 percent of the population in northern Kosovo and they want to remain part of Serbia, not an independent Kosovo.
Action by Kosovar special police there is rare and always triggers Serbian anger.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Kosovar police arrested 23 people, including Serbians, Bosnians and a Russian, after “bursting” into several northern villages and the town of Mitrovica with armored vehicles.
Vucic said he had seen video of the police firing “live ammunition” over the heads of unarmed Serbians and said the operation was designed to intimidate minority Serbians in Kosovo, whose population is mostly ethnic Albanians.
Vucic said that he has ordered troops near the border to be on “combat alert” to protect Serbians if tensions escalate.
“Serbia will try to preserve peace and stability, but will be fully ready to protect our people at the shortest notice,” Vucic told the Serbian parliament.
He later said that the Kosovar police officers withdrew from northern Kosovo, but in a sign of lingering tensions, Serbian troops and armored vehicles were seen leaving their barracks in central Serbia and heading toward the Kosovo border.
A Serbian air force MiG-29 fighter made a low pass near the border with Kosovo, Tanjug news agency reported.
Any Serbian armed incursion into Kosovo would mean a direct clash with NATO-led peacekeepers there.
Lately, Serbia has been making frequent military threats against Kosovo as its political and military alliance with Russia grows stronger, despite a proclaimed EU membership goal.
Kosovar police said five police officers and six civilians were injured during an operation against organized crime and corruption, and 19 police officers and a number of other people were arrested.
The UN mission in Kosovo said that those detained included two of its staff, one of them Russian. It said both employees were hospitalized for injuries, and it called for all parties to help restore calm and security.
Later, the mission said that the Russian citizen was released and Tanjug reported that he was taken to a hospital in northern Mitrovica with injuries to the head and face.
Russia called Kosovo’s actions a “provocation” and demanded the immediate release of the Russian UN employee.
Kosovar President Hashim Thaci earlier said that the Russian “was camouflaged under a diplomatic veil to hamper the police operation.”
Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj urged the ethnic Serbian minority to remain calm and support the police.
“Those involved in illegal activities will go behind bars,” he wrote on Facebook, adding that the police operation did not target people from specific ethnicities.
Kosovar Minister of Foreign Affairs Behgjet Pacolli said that authorities were set to carry out more police actions like Tuesday’s operation.
“I believe it’s not the last operation in Kosovo... Maybe today, maybe tomorrow or in next days. We are fighting organized crime,” he said.
Serbia and its allies Russia and China do not recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, while the US and more than 100 other nations do.
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