The Latest: Serbian Troops ‘Moving Toward’ Kosovo Border
BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — The Latest on tensions between Serbia and Kosovo (all times local):
Serbia's official news agency says a column of Serbian army vehicles packed with troops and equipment has left a military barracks in a central city and is heading south toward the border with Kosovo after tensions soared between the former wartime foes.
The report Tuesday said the movement started around noon GMT Tuesday, in an apparent show of resolve after Kosovo's special police carried out a heavily armed operation in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo.
The incursion angered Belgrade, which said earlier Tuesday it has ordered its troops to be on alert and act should tensions escalate.
The Tanjug agency says Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin arrived in the barracks in Kraljevo shortly before the column of vehicles came out.
It also reported a Serbian air force MiG-29 fighter jet making a low pass near the Kosovo border.
Serbia does not recognize Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence.
A European Union spokeswoman has called on both Kosovo and Serbia to show restraint as regional tensions soared after Kosovo police carried out a heavily armed operation in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo.
Maja Kocijancic said in an email that Brussels is in touch with the leadership in Pristina and Belgrade and is calling for "utmost restraint" after the incursion Tuesday. Kosovo said it was an operation against crime and corruption, but Serbia was angered and has put its troops on full alert in reaction.
Kocijancic said upholding the rule of law was an objective the EU strongly supports. But she warned Kosovo authorities that police operations need "to reinforce and not weaken the normalization efforts."
An EU-facilitated Pristina-Belgrade dialogue has stalled after Serbia declines to participate unless Kosovo lifts a 100% tariff on Serb and Bosnian goods set since last November.
Kosovo police say five police officers and six civilians were injured during an operation against organized crime and corruption in the Serb-dominated north that primarily targeted other police officers.
Police chief Rashit Qalaj said that 19 police officers and a number of other people were arrested during Tuesday's operation that involved special police forces. He said information about evidence that was seized would be released later.
Qalaj said two of the officers sent to carry out the arrests were injured during "armed resistance" by ethnic Serbs in northern Zubin Potok commune, while others were hurt while clearing the road of makeshift barricades.
The official said a U.N. vehicle with two staff members, a local and a Russian, was found while clearing a barricade.
"The reason we arrested them was participation at the barricades," Qalaj said.
The United Nations Mission in Kosovo said it deplored the detention and asked for their release.
The United Nations Mission in Kosovo, or UNMIK, has deplored the detention of two of its staff during an armed police operation in Kosovo's Serb-populated north.
The mission said in a statement Tuesday the two U.N. staff members were injured the operation, which triggered Serb anger and sent regional tensions soaring.
Russia's Foreign Ministry has said that one of the U.N. employees is Russian and condemned Kosovo for stoking tensions with neighboring Serbia. The nationality of the other employee is not immediately known.
UNMIK Ambassador Zahir Tanin called for their immediate release, adding "any harm to United Nations staff will be met with the highest degree of diplomatic and international legal responses."
UNMIK was deployed in Kosovo in 1999 after NATO intervened to stop a bloody Serb crackdown on Kosovo Albanian separatists. It has a reduced mission after Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence.
Russia is demanding Kosovo authorities immediately release a Russian U.N. employee detained and injured during a police operation in northern Kosovo that has fueled tensions with Serbia.
Alexander Chepurin, the Russian ambassador to Belgrade, said Tuesday on Twitter that "we are revolted by the provocation." Chepurin says the detained Russian citizen is an associate of the U.N. mission in Kosovo known as UNMIK.
He adds that "we are demanding immediate release of the Russian (citizen) and establishing the responsibility for all those responsible for this flagrant incident."
Kosovo said Tuesday's incursion in the Serb-dominated northern region was an operation against corruption and crime. Serbia warned it was a threat to peace and said it has put its troops on full alert.
Kosovo's President Hashim Thaci said that the Russian citizen was "camouflaged under a diplomatic veil to hamper the police operation."
Russia, a Serbian ally, does not recognize Kosovo's declaration of independence from Belgrade in 2008.
Russia's Foreign Ministry has accused Kosovo of stoking ethnic tensions with Serbia after heavily armed Kosovo police entered a Serb-dominated region in northern Kosovo and arrested some two dozen people.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement on Tuesday that Kosovo "provoked" Serbia by sending its police force to enter Serb-populated regions of the former Serbian province. Zakharova said the incursion "aims to stoke fears into the non-Albanian population" and "seize control over those areas by force."
Kosovo declared independence from Belgrade in 2008 after a bloody war. Belgrade and its allies Russia and China do not recognize Kosovo's statehood, while the United States and most of the Western states do.
Zakharova said on Tuesday that the incident wipes away the progress made in reconciliation between Serbia and Kosovo and called on Kosovo's "foreign patrons to rein in Kosovar and Albanian radicals."
Kosovo's president has rejected as "populist" Serbia's warnings about putting troops on alert in reaction to an armed police operation in a Serb-populated area in Kosovo.
Hashim Thaci said that the Kosovo police operation early Tuesday in Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, was fully legal and "directed against no community."
Thaci said that those arrested included "Albanians, Serbs, Bosnians and also a Russian who was camouflaged under a diplomatic veil to hamper the police operation."
He called for Belgrade's support "because organized crime is not local but regional."
Serbia regarded the operation as a threat to peace. It said Serbian troops have been ordered to be on alert and would act if tensions escalate.
Serbia's president is warning that his country will act to "protect our people" in neighboring Kosovo amid soaring tensions with its former war-time foe.
Aleksandar Vucic confirmed reports Tuesday that Serbian troops have been placed on alert after armed police in Kosovo, a former Serbian province, entered Serb-populated regions and made a number of arrests.
Vucic says Kosovo police so far have arrested 23 people after "bursting" into the northern region with armored vehicles. He told Serbia's parliament that Kosovo police have used force against "unarmed Serbs" and fired shots in the air.
Vucic says Serbia will "struggle to preserve peace and stability but we will be fully ready in a shortest possible period to protect our people."
Any intervention from Serbia would result in direct confrontation with NATO peacekeepers stationed in Kosovo. Vucic says that "we are aware of all the consequences."
The NATO-led Kosovo Force mission is calling on all people in the country to stay calm, adding that it is closely monitoring a police operation in the north.
KFOR spokesman Col. Vincenzo Grasso told The Associated Press on Tuesday that they are monitoring the situation and coordinating with the authorities, but NATO troops are not on alert.
"We are aware of the ongoing police operation. We are monitoring the situation and invite everybody to stay calm and not to escalate to the use of violence," he said by phone.
A Kosovo police operation against organized crime in the north, where most of the ethnic Serb minority lives, has sparked tension, and Serbia ordered its troops to full alert.
The Kosovapress news agency reported that three police officers were injured, one seriously.
Kosovo's president is calling on the ethnic Serb minority to remain calm and support the police fight against organized crime, which he says will speed up the country's process toward integration with the West.
Hashim Thaci on Tuesday called for calm after a police operation in the area of Mitrovica, where most of the ethnic Serb minority lives, sparked concern, and led Serbia to order its troops to full alert.
"Those involved in illegal activities will go behind bars," he wrote on his Facebook page, adding that the police operation was not targeting ethnicities. He invited the Serb minority "to support the fight against organized crime."
Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj called on Belgrade "not to undermine our efforts to tackle (crime)."
Serbia has suspended European Union-facilitated dialogue with the Kosovo government after Pristina in November slapped a 100-percent tax on Bosnian and Serbian imports, saying it will only be lifted when the two countries recognize Kosovo's sovereignty.
Serbia's state TV says a meeting is underway of the country's top security body following tensions in Kosovo over arrests in the Serb-populated north.
The report says President Aleksandar Vucic will speak in the parliament later on Tuesday about the latest developments. It says Vucic has warned the European Union that Serbia will react if Kosovo does not pull its special police out of northern Kosovo.
RTS TV also says "movements" of Serbian troops in the direction of Kosovo have been spotted after the country put the security forces on alert earlier on Tuesday.
Serbia's National Security Council includes top army and police officers and government officials.
Kosovo police have said they have arrested several people in an action in northern Kosovo against crime and corruption. Serbia insists the action is aimed at intimidating Serbs in Kosovo.
Kosovo police and media say two officers have been injured during a police action in the north of the country that has triggered tensions with Serbia.
A statement said Tuesday's action followed a months-long investigation of criminal groups involved in smuggling, abuse of power, bribery and illegal trade. The lives of the injured officers are not in danger.
Police faced resistance, especially in the commune of Zubin Potok, where they arrested the top policeman, an ethnic Serb. Local Serbs tried to block the road but police broke through.
The police statement said those arrested Tuesday included several police officers and citizens, but didn't specify how many.
Agim Bahtiri, the ethnic Albanian mayor of the commune of Mitrovica, said the operation was against no nationality "but those people who have done harm."
Serbia has ordered its troops to full alert after reports that Kosovo police entered Serb-populated regions of the former Serbian province.
Serbia's state TV said Tuesday that Kosovo's special police "burst into" northern Kosovo and made several arrests. There was no confirmation of the action from Pristina.
Serbian government official Marko Djuric says the Kosovo police action is designed to intimidate and expel Serbs from Kosovo and presents a "not only a threat to stability but the most direct threat to peace."
Serbia lost control over Kosovo after a NATO intervention in 1999. It does not recognize Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence.
State TV says Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic ordered a full state of alert for Serbian troops.