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Soldiers block off four town halls to keep back Serbs protesting against ethnic Albanian mayors taking office in north Kosovo.
NATO peacekeeping soldiers have formed security cordons around four town halls in Kosovo to keep back Serbs protesting against ethnic Albanian mayors taking office in a Serb-majority area after elections they boycotted.
In Zvecan, one of the towns in north Kosovo, state police – staffed entirely by ethnic Albanians after all Serbs quit the force last year – sprayed pepper gas to repel a crowd of Serbs who broke through a security barricade on Monday and tried to force their way into the municipality building, witnesses said.
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In Leposavic, close to the border with Serbia, US peacekeeping troops in anti-riot gear placed barbed wire around the municipality building to protect it from hundreds of angry Serbs gathering nearby.
“This morning, the NATO-led KFOR mission has increased its presence in four municipalities of northern Kosovo following the latest developments in the area,” a statement by KFOR, or Kosovo Force, said.
“In line with its mandate, KFOR is ready to take all necessary actions to ensure a safe environment in a neutral and impartial manner,” it said, adding that KFOR’s commander was in close contact with the security organs of Kosovo and Serbia.
The peacekeepers also acted to protect the town halls in Zubin Potok and North Mitrovica from possible threats.
Serbs, who form a majority in Kosovo’s north, have never accepted its 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia and still see Belgrade as their capital more than 20 years after the Kosovo Albanian uprising there against repressive Serbian rule.
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Ethnic Albanians make up more than 90 percent of the population in Kosovo as a whole, but northern Serbs have long demanded the implementation of a European Union-brokered 2013 deal for the creation of an association of autonomous municipalities in their area.
In April this year, Serbs refused to take part in local elections, and ethnic Albanian candidates won the mayoral races in four Serb-majority municipalities with a 3.5 percent turnout.
Serbs demand that the Kosovo government remove ethnic Albanian mayors from town halls and allow local administrations financed by Belgrade to return to their duties.
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Al Jazeera’s Assed Baig, reporting from Mitrovica, said the situation was “not getting any better”.
“There were ethnic Serbs gathered outside the municipality building in Zvecan. They walked past the NATO line. There were NATO troops there. There was a confusion about what NATO troops are supposed to do,” he said.
“We were right there when they were trying to force their way in, but the police stopped them and they sprayed gas on the protesters.”
He said a NATO representative at the scene asked a Serb politician to tell the protesters to de-escalate the situation, but the official said the demonstrators would not listen to any such call and it would prompt a further escalation.
On Friday, three out of four mayors were escorted into their offices by police, who were pelted with rocks and responded with tear gas and water cannon to disperse the protesters.
More than a dozen Serbs and five Kosovar police officers were injured in clashes that day, and Serbian troops on the border with Kosovo were put on high alert.
Bid to ease tensions
Local media reported on Monday that Western diplomats of the so-called Quint – five NATO members that focus on the Western Balkans – have summoned the ethnic Albanian mayors to a meeting in the capital, Pristina, in a bid to ease tensions.
On Sunday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on the Kosovo government to tone down tensions with Serbia.
“Pristina must de-escalate and not take unilateral, destabilising steps,” Stoltenberg said in a tweet.
After a phone call with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti tweeted: “Emphasized that elected mayors will provide services to all citizens.”
NATO peacekeepers were deployed in Kosovo after a 1999 NATO bombing campaign that drove the Serbian military and security police out of Kosovo, ending a brutal campaign against ethnic Albanian rebels.