PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovo on Monday observed a day of mourning for the Kosovar Albanian police officer killed by Serb gunmen in the north of the country in one of the worst confrontations since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
About 30 masked men in combat uniforms opened fire on a police patrol near the village of Banjska in the early hours of Sunday morning, killing one officer and injuring another. They then fled to a nearby Serbian Orthodox monastery, breaking down the gates with an armored personnel carrier before barricading themselves in with priests and visiting pilgrims.
The stand-off ended when most of the assailants escaped on foot under cover of darkness on Sunday evening. Three of the gunmen were shot and killed by police.
The clash raised tensions at a time when Serbia and Kosovo have been seeking to normalize ties. In February the wartime foes agreed a 10-point plan intended to bring them closer to EU membership, but implementation has faltered.
Flags were at half-staff on all public buildings in the capital Pristina Monday to mourn the slain officer, Afrim Bunjaku. In northern Kosovo, where most of the ethnic Serb minority lives in four municipalities around Mitrovica, police searched for the gunmen who had escaped.
It is not clear who the assailants are, nor who is supporting them. Pristina accuses Belgrade of backing the “terrorists,” an accusation Serbia denies, saying they are Serbs from Kosovo protesting the government there.
Three of the attackers were killed and two injured in the shoot-out as the stand-off ended. Another Kosovar police officer was injured in the confrontation.
Two of the gunmen and four Serbs discovered nearby with communication equipment were arrested and are under investigation for terrorist acts.
Police showed the journalists the arsenal of weaponry they had seized at the monastery, including 24 vehicles and an armored personal carrier, weapons, mines and grenades, missile launchers and a lot of ammunition.
Kosovo’s Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla called on Serbia to hand over six injured gunmen who are being treated at a hospital in Novi Pazar, the closest city across the border.
The minister said they had identified at least five of the assailants as members of the ethnic Serb Civil Protection organization, one of two groups which Pristina has declared as illegal.
Based on evidence, the minister said it was very possible that Milan Radoicic, a leader of the Srpska List party and closely associated with Serbia’s president, was part of the group. Radoicic is banned from entering the U.S. and the U.K.
“It’s a terrorist, criminal, professional unit that had planned and prepared what they did and who are not a smuggling band but a mercenary structure which is politically, financially and logistically supported by official Belgrade,” said Prime Minister Albin Kurti.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said the gunmen were local Kosovo Serbs “who no longer want to stand Kurti’s terror.”
He condemned the killing of the Kosovo policeman, but said the clash was the result of “brutal” pressure on Kosovo Serbs by the government there. He denied any involvement by Belgrade.
Vucic also blasted the West and its “hypocrisy” over Kosovo.
“You can kill us all. Serbia will never recognize the independence of Kosovo, that monster creation that you made by bombing Serbia,” Vucic said, referring to the 1999 NATO intervention which led to Kosovo separating from Serbia.
Serbia and Kosovo, its former province, have been at odds for decades. Their 1998-99 war left more than 10,000 people dead, mostly Kosovo Albanians. Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008 but Belgrade has refused to recognize the move.
The EU, with the backing of the U.S., has been brokering negotiations between the two sides. In February, Kurti and Vucic gave their approval to a 10-point EU plan, but have since distanced themselves from the agreement.
Earlier this month, an EU-facilitated meeting between the two leaders ended in acrimony.
In a statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. “strongly condemns the coordinated violent attacks,” saying: “The perpetrators of this crime must be held accountable via a transparent investigative process.”
“This horrific attack further emphasizes the necessity of preventive diplomacy and dialogue,” Miroslav Lajcak, the EU’s envoy for the talks, wrote in his Facebook page.
However, there are no plans at the moment for Kurti and Vucic to meet again.
The EU warned both countries that their commitments in February “are binding on them and play a role in the European path of the parties” — in other words, Serbia and Kosovo’s chances of joining the 27-nation bloc.
Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.
Follow Llazar Semini at https://twitter.com/lsemini