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US seeks to calm ethnic conflict in Kosovo, blasts PM

Kosovo is becoming a new dangerous crisis for Europe after ethnic tensions turned violent, leaving NATO troops in the middle of a brewing conflict at the heart of the Balkans.

(CN) — Amid a dangerous escalation of violent conflict in the tiny disputed state of Kosovo, Washington's ambassador to the hot spot is blaming the Albanian leadership in Pristina for fueling ethnic tensions with the country's Serbian population.

Kosovo, a self-declared Muslim-dominated independent state carved out of Serbia by NATO in 1999, is seen as a potential powder keg at the heart of Europe because the territorial conflict pits Washington and its European Union allies against Serbia and Russia, which share Eastern Orthodoxy and Slavic ties. China also backs Serbia while Turkey supports Kosovo. The U.S. and EU back Kosovo, but they are trying to get Pristina and Belgrade to normalize relations.

For the past week, ethnic Serbs in Kosovo have been protesting against the installation of ethnic Albanian mayors who won elections in Serb-dominated parts of northern Kosovo. But the elections were boycotted by the Serb population and turnout was less than 3.5%, or about 1,500 ballots out of about 45,000 eligible voters.

The wave of protests turned extremely violent on Monday when 30 NATO peacekeepers and more than 50 protesters were injured in clashes that included stun grenades, Molotov cocktails and gunfire. Serbian militant nationalists were accused of spearheading the violence against NATO troops.

Large protests continued on Wednesday and were reportedly mostly peaceful, including the unfurling of a huge 820-foot-long Serbian flag. About 700 American soldiers were mobilized to Kosovo to shore up NATO-led forces in the country.

Late Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador Jeff Hovenier told reporters that Washington did not support the actions of Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti.

“This was a crisis that from our perspective was unnecessary,” he said, according to a transcript of his news briefing.

The ambassador said Pristina did not coordinate with Washington a decision to use “forcible means” to install ethnic Albanian mayors in the mayoral offices of towns in north Kosovo.

On Friday, Kosovo police forcefully dispersed ethnic Serbs seeking to stop the mayors from taking their oaths and on Monday protesters sought to stop them from moving into their offices. Local Serbian mayors and police resigned en masse late last year in protest over a ban on using Serbian license plates, a move that prompted Pristina to hold special elections.

Hovenier criticized Kurti's insistence on having the mayors take an oath of office inside the mayoral buildings and to work from them. He said the mayors could work from different buildings.

“When we became aware of it, we advised strongly against it, because we anticipated consequences that we are now seeing,” the U.S. ambassador said.

Considering the mayors were elected in boycotted elections, Hovenier said Kosovo used the wrong tactics.

“They do not have a strong mandate from their electorate to do a large initiative,” he said. “So, we don’t understand why there’s an insistence on them working from municipal buildings.”

He warned that Kurti's actions would have “negative reputational impacts for Kosovo” and had “set back our efforts to advance the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.”

To punish Kurti, Washington canceled Kosovo's participation in NATO military exercises. The U.S. is demanding the prime minister “take immediate steps to achieve a de-escalation in the north,” the ambassador said.

“He has not been responsive to those requests. So we are considering what our other actions will be,” Hovenier said.

The ambassador warned Washington will stop supporting Kosovo's drive to join the EU and NATO.

“We regret very much this is where the situation is, but I have to be honest that this is where the situation is,” he told reporters.

On Wednesday, Kurti said he would consider holding early elections in north Kosovo, an apparent concession to American and European demands to de-escalate.

However, many top officials in the West also condemned the Biden administration and Brussels for reprimanding Kurti and blamed Serbia for the escalation.

In going forward with the installation of the mayors, Kurti argued he had to fulfill constitutional obligations and that the mayors needed to ensure citizens got public services.

Kurti accused Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic of sending “extremist crowds” expressing pro-Kremlin views to stir up trouble in north Kosovo.

Serbian nationalist slogans and graffiti were spray painted on Kosovo police vehicles and journalists’ cars, according to Kosovo 2.0, an online media outlet. The letter Z, a symbol in support of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, also was painted on vehicles.

Vucic accuses Kurti of violating the rights of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo and seeking to provoke Serbia into an armed conflict with NATO. In ratcheting up tensions, Vucic ordered the military on high alert and added Serbian troops to the border with Kosovo.

The territorial conflict goes back to 1999 when U.S. President Bill Clinton launched a NATO bombing campaign against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and his forces who were engaged in fierce fighting against the Kosovo Liberation Army, a Kosovar Albanian armed insurgency seeking independence from Serbia.

Following the NATO intervention, Kosovo became a self-declared state but its independence is not recognized by Serbia, Russia, China and many other countries. The United States and many of its allies recognize Kosovo.

Serbians were angered by the loss of Kosovo because the region has deep historical meaning for Serbs. Kosovo was the center of the Serbian Empire before its forces were defeated in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 by the Ottoman Empire. Serbia reacquired Kosovo in a war with the Ottomans in 1912 and the region became an autonomous region under communist Yugoslavia.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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