26 June 2023

Serbia releases Kosovo police officers amid outcry over arrests

26 June 2023

A Serbian court has ordered the release of three police officers from Kosovo who were detained earlier this month as tensions escalated between the Balkan foes and US and European Union officials demanded that they be set free.

A court in the central Serbian town of Kraljevo said it was releasing the police officers, and they later returned to Kosovo.

The court said in a statement that the three were charged with illegal possession of weapons and explosive devices, and that they will be allowed to remain free pending potential further proceedings.

Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti tweeted that “we confirm that the 3 kidnapped police officers have been released.

“Even though we are joyous that they get to return to their families, this abduction consists of a serious human rights violation & must be reprimanded. The Serbian aggression must be held accountable.”

The three were detained in mid-June. Serbian authorities said they had crossed into the country from Kosovo, while Kosovar officials insisted they had been kidnapped inside Kosovo and transferred to a Serbian prison.

The dispute had increased tensions between the two countries that had flared into recent violent clashes in the Serb-majority north of Kosovo, stirring fears of a renewal of the 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo that left more than 10,000 people dead, mostly Kosovar Albanians.

The EU summoned the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia to Brussels last week in a bid to ease the tensions.

The meeting produced no breakthrough as EU officials urged both sides to make an immediate effort to defuse the situation.

Serbia and its former province Kosovo have been at odds for decades, with Belgrade refusing to recognise Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence.

Western efforts to resolve the crisis increased recently to avert possible instability in the Balkans as the war rages in Ukraine.

Tensions flared anew late last month, including with violent clashes, after Kosovo police seized local municipality buildings in northern Kosovo, where Serbs represent a majority, to install ethnic Albanian mayors who were elected in a local election in April after Serbs overwhelmingly boycotted the vote.

Serbia has demanded that Kosovo police and the mayors pull out from the northern region bordering Serbia and that several ethnic Serbs, who had been detained in Kosovo in the past few weeks, should be released.

Belgrade has heightened army readiness, threatening a military intervention over alleged “torture” of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo.

In response to Kosovo’s actions in taking over the municipal buildings, the United States cancelled the country’s participation in a US-led military exercise and halted high-level visits to Pristina.

Washington and most EU states have recognised Kosovo’s independence, while Russia and China have backed Belgrade’s claim to the territory.

Serbia lost control over Kosovo after Nato intervened in 1999 to stop the war, forcing Belgrade to end a brutal crackdown against separatist ethnic Albanians.

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