BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia ordered its troops to full alert on Tuesday as tensions soared in the Balkans amid reports that heavily armed Kosovo police entered Serb-populated regions of the former Serbian province and made several arrests.
Serbia’s state TV said shots were heard and tear gas was used as Kosovo’s special police “burst into” a village in northern Kosovo with armored vehicles early in the morning. The region bordering Serbia is 90 percent populated by Serbs, who refuse to be part of Kosovo.
Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj confirmed the action, saying on Twitter that an “anti-smuggling and organized crime operation” is underway in northern Kosovo.
President Hashim Thaci called on the ethnic Serb minority to remain calm and support the police, saying the fight against organized crime would speed up the country’s process toward integration with the West.
“Those involved in illegal activities will go behind bars,” he wrote on his Facebook page, adding that the police operation was not targeting ethnicities.
Kosovo authorities said at least two policemen were injured during the action.
Serbian government official Marko Djuric said the Kosovo police action is designed to intimidate and expel Serbs from Kosovo and presents “not only a threat to stability but the most direct threat to peace.”
“If this doesn’t stop immediately, there is no doubt how Serbia will react already during the day,” Djuric warned.
State TV said Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic ordered a full state of alert for Serbian troops stationed near the border with Kosovo, and state TV said movements of Serb troops were reported in the area.
Any Serbian armed incursion in Kosovo would mean a direct clash with NATO peacekeepers there.
The state TV also reported that a meeting is underway of the country’s top security body following the tensions. The report said Vucic will speak in the parliament later on Tuesday about the developments.
Serbia lost control over Kosovo after a NATO intervention in 1999 that stopped a bloody Serb crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists and civilians. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence.
On Monday, Vucic warned of renewed clashes in Kosovo if a negotiated “compromise” solution for Serbia’s predominantly ethnic Albanian former province is not found soon.
AP writers Jovana Gec in Belgrade and LLazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed to this report.