Kosovo police crackdown meets 'armed resistance' in Serb north

Pristina (AFP) –


Kosovo police forces met "armed resistance" in an early morning raid Tuesday targeting fellow officers and others suspected of organised crime in the predominantly Serb north, authorities said, raising tensions with Belgrade.

The operation took place in the region flanking the porous border with Serbia, a hotspot for smuggling goods.

Kosovo special police said they detained "some police officers and some citizens" accused of participating in criminal gangs, smuggling goods, abusing official positions and bribes.

Health authorities told local media that four police officers had been treated for injuries so far, two of whom had been wounded by firearms. All four men are in stable conditions, the hospital said.

In addition to "armed resistance in North Mitrovica", the Serb-half of a northern city, police said they "also encountered blockades of some roads".

Officers "were forced to use the necessary means to open the roads in order to continue the police operation," the police statement added.

There were also reports of a tense situation in the Serb town of Zubin Potok, where two citizens were slightly injured after police had to break through a barricade erected by locals.

By mid-Tuesday, the town appeared calm though there several shops had broken windows and scraps from the barricades, including burned tires, remained scattered on the ground, according to an AFP reporter.

Police did not specify the number of suspects arrested but said they included ethnic Albanians, which comprise the majority of Kosovo's population, as well as Serbs and Bosniaks.

Kosovo's customs department said four of its officers were among those arrested.

Since breaking away from Serbia in a 1998-99 war, Kosovo authorities have struggled to exercise clout in the northern ethnic Serb communities, who remain loyal to Belgrade.

- Belgrade army 'on alert' -

The operation riles already rancorous relations between the former war foes.

In Belgrade, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he confirmed at least 23 Serbs and Bosniaks among those arrested.

Vucic told parliament he "ordered all units of our army be put on alert", a command the president routinely gives during bouts of tension with Kosovo.

"I guarantee you if an escalation of the conflict occurs, if an attack against the Serbian people occurs, Serbia will win," he added.

The neighbours are under pressure from Brussels to normalise ties if they want to advance towards possible EU membership.

But diplomatic spats keep derailing talks and halting progress.

On Monday, President Vucic repeating a warning that he would not officially return to EU-led negotiations with Pristina until Kosovo lifted a 100 percent tariff slapped on Serbian goods last November.

The tax was a retaliation for Belgrade's efforts to thwart the global recognition of Kosovo.

Around 100 countries, including the US and much of Western Europe, have recognised Kosovo's statehood.

But Belgrade allies Moscow and Beijing reject it, effectively barring Pristina from a seat in the United Nations.

On Tuesday KFOR, the NATO-led troops tasked with protecting Kosovo for the past two decades, urged "calm" and said it was monitoring the situation.

Kosovo's 1998-1999 independence war claimed more than 13,000 lives, mostly ethnic Albanians, and led to a humanitarian and refuge crisis with almost one million people fleeing for neighbouring Albania and Macedonia.