(CN) — Fears of armed conflict breaking out in the Balkans over the disputed territory of Kosovo are back after 30 NATO peacekeepers were injured in violent protests Monday by Serbs angry over the swearing-in of Albanian Kosovar mayors in Serb-dominated towns.
On Monday, violent clashes between NATO peacekeepers stationed outside an administrative building in northern Kosovo left 30 soldiers injured, according to KFOR, a NATO special force in Kosovo.
The tensions were sparked by a decision to swear in mayors in Serb-dominated towns even though the vast majority of the population boycotted April elections. Despite fewer than 3.5% turnout, Kosovo's leadership backed the results and ordered the Albanian Kosovar mayors to take their offices.
Serbs boycotted the elections because they accuse the Albanian Kosovar leadership in Pristina, the capital, of not abiding by agreements to give the Serb-dominated northern Kosovo autonomy.
KFOR said 19 Hungarian soldiers and 11 Italian ones were injured in the clashes in Zvecan. Three soldiers were shot and injuries included suffered fractures and burns from improvised explosive incendiary devices, KFOR said. It added that the injuries were not life-threatening.
Videos showed chaotic scenes with protesters attacking KFOR forces. The peacekeepers were accused by Serbs of provoking the violence and backing what they see as illegitimate Albanian-run administrations. KFOR said it did not provoke the violence and acted with restraint against “a violent and dangerous crowd.”
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said 52 Serbs sought treatment at a hospital with three of them sustaining serious injuries, according to Tass, a Russian state news agency.
On Monday at the French Open, Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic added to the tensions by signing a courtside television camera lens with the message: “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop violence” in Serbian.
He posted a photo of his message on social media, sparking outrage among Kosovo's supporters. Historically, Kosovo was at the center of Serbia's history.
On Tuesday, Russia and China blamed the NATO forces for sparking tensions in Kosovo and taking the side of Kosovo's Albanian leadership. Neither country recognizes the independence of Kosovo.
Last week, the United States signaled its displeasure with Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti for recognizing the disputed mayors. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Pristina was “escalating tensions in the north and increasing instability.”
In a joint statement, the U.S. and European Union called on “Kosovo’s authorities to immediately step back and de-escalate” and said they were concerned by Vučić's “decision to raise the level of readiness of its” military at the Kosovo border.
They said both sides need to use “maximum restraint” and avoid “inflammatory rhetoric.” On Tuesday, they condemned Monday's violence.
In response to the violence, about 700 American NATO soldiers were sent to Kosovo to beef up the ranks of peacekeepers. About 3,800 NATO forces are routinely stationed in Kosovo.
Talks between Belgrade and Pristina to settle the territorial dispute have shown no progress. Both Serbia and Kosovo are seeking entry into the EU, but the conflict has stymied their admittance. The Kosovo conflict risks sparking wider tensions in the volatile Balkans region.
Last November, the tensions flared up after Kurti tried to force Serbs to pay fines for driving with Serbian license plates. The prime minister backed down at the last moment under pressure from the EU.
Kurti's government argues it can no longer recognize its citizens' Serbian documents and laws. Targeting Serbian license plates was a way for Kurti to declare Pristina has complete sovereignty over Kosovo.
Scores of judges and police in northern Kosovo, which is home to about 50,000 Serbs, resigned en masse to protest Kurti's anti-Serbian measures.
Serbia as well as many other countries do not recognize Kosovo's independence and views its creation as the result of an illegal NATO military intervention in 1999.
Kosovo, which is recognized by Washington and most of its allies, was carved out from Serbia in 1999 when U.S. President Bill Clinton launched a NATO bombing campaign against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's forces in Kosovo without approval from the United Nations Security Council.
Milosevic's forces were engaged in fierce fighting against the Kosovo Liberation Army, a Kosovar Albanian armed insurgency seeking independence from Serbia.
Clinton argued that NATO needed to intervene to prevent genocide against Muslims living in Kosovo. But NATO's military intervention was blasted as a violation of international law because it was not supported by the U.N. Security Council. Critics also contend NATO's siding with Kosovar Albanians set a dangerous precedent.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @https://twitter.com/cainburdeau
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