Russia, Serbia blame NATO for Kosovo tensions

A Kosovo Serb woman is framed by Serbian flags as she attends a protest against Kosovo police action in the northern Serb-dominated part of ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, Kosovo, Wednesday, May 29, 2019. Russia and Serbia have blamed NATO and the West for an armed raid by Kosovo police in the Serb dominated north of Kosovo when a Russian U.N. employee was among more than two dozen people arrested in what Kosovo says was an anti-organized crime operation. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Russia and its traditional ally Serbia on Wednesday blamed NATO and the European Union for the recent increase in tensions in Kosovo, where local police launched a raid in the Serb-dominated north of the country.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday’s incident, which saw heavily armed Kosovo police carry out what they said was an organized crime operation, was instigated by “those who want to create a buffer zone from Russia on the Balkans” and who “want to push everyone to NATO.”

Speaking to reporters in Slovenia where he was on an official visit, Lavrov said the two bodies “hold sway” over the authorities in Kosovo.

Tuesday’s raid saw Kosovo police arresting more than two dozen people including a Russian U.N. employee. Several people on both sides were injured in the clashes.

The operation angered Serbia, which immediately put its army on full alert in response. Any Serbian armed incursion into Kosovo could lead to a standoff with NATO-led peacekeepers there.

NATO troops have been present in Kosovo since 1999, when a bloody war between Serbia and its former province ended only after the western military alliance intervened.

Serbia has in recent months made military threats against Kosovo as its political and military alliance with Moscow grows stronger despite a proclaimed ambition to join the EU. Serbia and Russia do not recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, while the U.S. and more than 100 other countries do. The lingering dispute has stalled both countries’ efforts to become EU members.

For his part, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic accused NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo of “lying” when they said they had informed Belgrade in advance of the police action. He also criticized them for insisting that Tuesday’s raid in the north was a regular police operation.

“NATO should do its job, and when they don’t do it, there are others who will,” Vucic warned.

“They are not telling the truth. The situation for the Serb population in Kosovo is much worse than it was up until yesterday.”

The KFOR peacekeeping mission spokesman, Col. Vincenzo Grasso, said he had been informed days before the raid.

“That was not a surprise. Everybody was informed. That was on the news,” he said.

The European Union’s top diplomat Federica Mogherini urged Kosovo and Serbia to return to the negotiating table and normalize relations amid tensions.

She warned about “the risk of the dark forces of the past coming back, in terms of confrontation, even of conflict” if the two sides continue facing off.

Thousands of people gathered Wednesday at a rally in the northern, Serb-dominated part of the divided city of Mitrovica to protest the arrests.

The protesters waved Serbian flags and banners with the names of those who were detained. Politician Goran Rakic blamed the West for being behind Tuesday’s police move.

“I implore you not to respond to their provocation cooked up in Western kitchens,” Rakic told the crowd. “They want us to negotiate with those who beat us. If they want to root out crime, they should start in their own yard.”

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AP Writers Jovana Gec in Belgrade and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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