PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovo police on Friday raided several locations in a Serb-dominated area of the country’s north, where weekend violence left four people dead and further strained relations between Serbia and its former province.
Police said in a statement that they were conducting searches at five locations in three municipalities. The operation was connected to a Sunday shootout between Serb insurgents and police officers in northern Kosovo’s village of Banjska.
The confrontation was one of the worst since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and Belgrade refused to recognize the split. NATO, which leads the KFOR peacekeeping force in Kosovo, announced Friday that it would beef up its presence.
About 30 masked men opened fire on a police patrol near Banjska before breaking down the gates of a Serbian Orthodox monastery and barricading themselves inside with the priests and visiting pilgrims. The 12-hour shootout that followed left one police officer and three gunmen dead.
The violence further raised tensions in the Balkan region at a time when European Union and U.S. officials have been pushing for a deal that would normalize ties between Serbia and Kosovo. A NATO bombing campaign on Serb positions in Kosovo and Serbia led to the end of their 1998-99 war. The war left some 10,000 people dead, mostly Kosovo Albanians.
Serbian media reported that Kosovo police raided a hospital and a restaurant in the Serb-dominated part of the town of Mitrovica on Friday, as well as locations in other towns. The local Kossev news agency said officers confiscated several vehicles.
Kosovo accused Serbia of direct involvement in the clashes in Banjska, which the government in Belgrade denied. Kosovo police said they had found huge quantities of weapons and equipment that suggested the insurgents had planned a wider operation. Some of the vehicles used had KFOR insignia.
It was not immediately clear how many peacekeeping more troops NATO has agreed to send to Kosovo. Around 700 troops deployed from Turkey in June after dozens of KFOR personnel were hurt in riots in northern Kosovo. Some of them sustained life-altering injuries.
“We will always continue to make sure that our commander has the resources and flexibility necessary for KFOR to fulfill its mandate,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement. “We stand ready to make further adjustments to KFOR’s posture as required.”
KFOR currently consists of around 4,500 troops from 27 NATO and partner countries. Its role is to help maintain a safe environment and ensure free movement for all people and communities in Kosovo. It operates under a United Nations mandate.
Part of the mission’s work has been deterring hostility or threats against Kosovo by Serb forces. KFOR has said that it closely monitored the weekend’s developments. It would only intervene if its help is requested by Kosovo authorities.
On Thursday, Kosovo’s interior minister, Xhelal Sveçla, alleged in an interview with The Associated Press that Serbia operates training camps for insurgents and said Kosovo authorities were also investigating Russia’s involvement in the violence.
There are fears in the West that Russia, acting through Serbia, may want to destabilize the Balkans and shift at least some of the attention from Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russia has voiced support for Serbia over the clashes, blaming the West for allegedly failing to protect Kosovo Serbs.
The EU, with the backing of the U.S., has been brokering negotiations between the two sides. In February, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vu?i? gave their approval to a 10-point EU plan for normalizing relations, but the two leaders have since distanced themselves from the agreement.