Serbia has put its military on alert after more than 20 people in Serb-dominated areas of Kosovo were arrested and 11 injured during raids by police special forces.
Two members of the United Nations mission to Kosovo, a local and a Russian citizen, were also detained but released and hospitalised after outcries in New York and Moscow. Kosovo officials accused them of helping Serbs try to block a road with their car.
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Nineteen local police officers and several civilians were arrested in and around Mitrovica as part of a long-running operation against organised crime. Kosovo officials said the police were not targeting minorities and those detained included Serbs, Albanians and Bosniaks suspected of smuggling.
But Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic called operation an attempt to intimidate minority Serbs in Kosovo. He ordered the army to “full combat readiness,” warning that “if there is any serious endangering of order and people in the northern Kosovo, they will protect our people”.
Serbian state news reported on Tuesday that a column of troops and vehicles was heading toward the border. Nato still has several thousand peacekeepers stationed in Kosovo.
The fledgling state declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 following a war involving Albanian troops and Nato bombers in 1999.
But Kosovo’s northern border region, which is 90 per cent Serb, has refused to participate in the Albanian-dominated government and remained loyal to Belgrade.
Among the 11 injured were five police special forces including one hit by a gunshot, Kosovo officials said. Six Serb civilians were also hurt in the clashes. Serbia accused Kosovo police of firing over Serbs’ heads and deploying tear gas.
Photographs showed cars and lorries overturned on the roadside where Serbs had reportedly attempted to set up barricades against the police operation.
Kosovo’s foreign minister warned police operations could continue in the north, which has been plagued by cross-border smuggling.
In a speech in parliament on Monday, Mr Vucic had called for a compromise solution on Kosovo and warned clashes could resume there if no agreement was found. Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo’s independence despite the West’s support for it.
A Right-wing politician accused him of conspiring with Kosovo’s leaders in an attempt to force a deal.