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Soldiers blocked four town halls to stop Serbs protesting the inauguration of an ethnic Albanian mayor in northern Kosovo.
NATO peacekeepers have formed a security cordon around four town halls in Kosovo to deter Serbs from protesting the inauguration of an Albanian mayor in the Serb-majority region after an election they boycotted.
In Zvekan, one of Kosovo’s northern towns, the state police — made up entirely of Albanians after all Serbs quit the force last year — pepper-gassed to disperse Serbs who broke through security barricades and tried to force them on Monday. Witnesses said entering the municipal building.
In Leposavik, near the Serbian border, U.S. peacekeepers in riot gear placed barbed wire around the municipal building to protect it from hundreds of angry Serbs gathered nearby.
“This morning, following the latest developments in the area, NATO-led KFOR increased its presence in four cities in northern Kosovo,” a statement from KFOR, or KFOR, said.
“In accordance with its mandate, KFOR is prepared to take all necessary actions to ensure a secure environment in a neutral and impartial manner,” it said, adding that KFOR commanders are in close contact with security agencies in Kosovo and Serbia.
Peacekeepers also moved to protect town halls in Zubin Potok and North Mitrovica from possible threats.
The Serb majority in northern Kosovo never accepted the 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia and still counts Belgrade as their capital more than two decades after a Kosovar Albanian uprising against Serbia’s oppressive rule.
Ethnic Albanians make up more than 90 percent of Kosovo’s overall population, but northern Serbs have long demanded the implementation of a European Union-brokered 2013 deal to create associations of municipalities in their regions.
In April, after Serbs refused to participate in local elections, Albanian candidates won mayoral races in four Serb-majority cities with a 3.5 percent turnout.
The Serbs are demanding that the Kosovo government remove the Albanian mayor from the city hall and allow the Belgrade-funded local administration to resume its duties.
Al Jazeera’s Assed Baig reported from Mitrovica that the situation was “not getting better”.
“There were Serbs gathered outside the municipal building in Zvecan. They walked through the NATO lines. There were NATO troops there. People were confused about what NATO troops were supposed to do,” he said.
“We were there when they tried to force their way in, but the police stopped them and gassed the protesters.”
He said a NATO representative at the scene asked a Serb politician to tell protesters to de-escalate, but the official said the demonstrators would not heed any such calls, prompting further escalation.
On Friday, three-quarters of the mayors entered their offices under police escort, who threw rocks at them and responded with tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters.
During the clashes that day, more than a dozen Serbs and five Kosovo police officers were injured, and the Serb army on the Kosovo border was on high alert.
try to ease the tension
Local media reported on Monday that Western diplomats from the so-called “quintuplets” – five NATO members focused on the western Balkans – had called a meeting of ethnic Albanian mayors in the capital Pristina to defuse tensions situation.
On Sunday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on Kosovo’s government to ease tensions with Serbia.
“Pristina must de-escalate and not take unilateral, destabilizing steps,” Stoltenberg said in a tweet.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti tweeted after a phone call with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell: “Stresses that the elected mayor will serve all citizens.”
NATO peacekeepers were deployed in Kosovo after a 1999 NATO bombing campaign drove Serbian troops and security police out of Kosovo, ending a brutal campaign against ethnic Albanian insurgents.