ZVECAN, Kosovo (AP) — International efforts to defuse a crisis in Kosovo intensified Wednesday as ethnic Serbs held more protests in a northern town where recent clashes with NATO-led peacekeepers sparked fears of renewed conflict in the troubled region.
Hundreds of Serbs repeated at a rally their demand for the withdrawal from northern Kosovo of the special police and ethnic Albanian officials who were elected to mayor’s offices in votes overwhelmingly boycotted by Serbs. The crowd then spread a huge Serbian flag outside the city hall in the town of Zvecan.
The rising tensions have fueled concern about another war like the 1998-99 fighting in Kosovo that claimed more than 10,000 lives, left more than 1 million people homeless and resulted in a NATO peacekeeping mission that has lasted nearly a quarter of a century.
Working to avert any escalation, European Union officials met with Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti on the sidelines of a conference in Bratislava, Slovakia. The leaders of France and Germany announced plans to meet top Serbia and Kosovo officials on Thursday at a summit in Moldova.
“The current situation is dangerous and unsustainable,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. “We need urgent de-escalation.”
Speaking in Slovakia, Kurti flatly rejected Serb demands but left the door open for fresh local elections.
“As long as there is a violent mob outside the municipal buildings, we must have our special units,” he said. “If there would have been peaceful protests asking for early election, that would attract my attention, and perhaps I would consider that request.”
Kurti also suggested that Russia may have a hand in the latest flare-up, pointing to protesters who “do graffiti with letter Z” and show admiration for “despotic” Russian President Vladimir Putin and for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Russia is a close Serbian ally, although Belgrade populist leaders claim to be seeking European Union membership.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that Moscow is monitoring the situation and supporting “all legitimate rights and interests of Kosovo Serbs.”
Wednesday’s protest in Zvecan, 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of the capital, Pristina, ended peacefully. On Monday, ethnic Serbs tried to storm municipal offices and fought with both Kosovo police and the peacekeepers, leaving 30 NATO soldiers and 50 rioters injured.
A former province of Serbia, Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence is recognized by Washington and most EU nations but not by Belgrade, Russia or China.
Serbs are a minority in Kosovo, but they constitute a majority in parts of the country’s north bordering Serbia. Many reject the Albanian-majority territory’s claim of independence.
The United States and the European Union recently stepped up efforts to solve the dispute. NATO said it will send 700 more troops to northern Kosovo to help quell violent protests after the clashes on Monday. The NATO-led peacekeeping mission known as KFOR currently consists of almost 3,800 troops.
A German government spokesperson said Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron plan to meet Thursday with the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo.
Spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit told reporters in Berlin that the meeting will take place on the sidelines of the European Political Community meeting in Chisinau, Moldova.
The confrontation first unfolded last week after ethnic Albanian officials entered municipal buildings to take office with an escort of Kosovo police.
When Serbs tried to block the officials, Kosovo police fired tear gas to disperse them. In Zvecan on Monday, angry Serbs again clashed first with the police and later with NATO-led troops who tried to secure the area.
Serbia put the country’s military on its highest state of alert and sent more troops to the border with Kosovo.
Western officials have sharply criticized both Kosovo authorities for pushing to install the newly elected mayors and Serbs because of the violence.
The Kosovo government’s “decision to force access to municipal buildings sharply and unnecessarily escalated tensions,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
He urged Kosovo to use alternate locations for the new mayors and withdraw police from the vicinity of the municipal buildings. Serbia, he said, should lower its army’s alert level and make sure KFOR troops are not attacked.
French President Macron also criticized Kosovo for organizing the municipal election in the country’s north. He said Kosovo disrespected an EU-backed plan to normalize ties between former war foes.
“Very clearly, the Kosovar authorities are responsible for the current situation and for failing to respect an agreement that was important and that was sealed just a few weeks ago,” he said.
Serbia’s defense minister on Wednesday told state broadcaster RTS that the “security situation is highly risky because of one-sided, illegal, illegitimate decisions by the administration in Pristina.” He referred to the “occupation of the north of Kosovo.”
Serbian officials have repeatedly warned that Serbia would not stand idle if Serbs in Kosovo come under attack.
Meanwhile in Pristina, the U.S. ambassador to Kosovo, Jeff Hovenier, said Kosovo’s participation in the Defender Europe 23 military drills has been canceled. The exercises involve some 2,800 U.S. troops and 7,000 soldiers from other nations, including Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece and Turkey.
The 1998-1999 war in Kosovo erupted when ethnic Albanian separatists launched a rebellion against Serbia, which responded with a brutal crackdown. The war ended after NATO bombing forced Serbia to pull out of the territory.
The Balkan region is still reckoning with the aftermath of a series of bloody conflicts in the 1990s during the violent breakup of the former country of Yugoslavia.
On Wednesday, United Nations judges imposed increased sentences for two allies of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic who were convicted of an attempt to drive non-Serbs out of towns in Croatia and Bosnia during the wars in the 1990s. Milosevic also led Serbia during its 1998-1999 war in Kosovo.
Associated Press writers Llazar Semini, Jovana Gec and Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this story.