NATO troops stationed in Kosovo under the alliance’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) mission were wounded Monday while trying to disperse a group of ethnic Serb protesters in the town of Zvecan.
Tensions escalated in Zvecan on Friday after Kosovo police used tear gas to disband a group of Serbs who were trying to block an ethnic Albanian mayor from entering his office building.
The mayor won office in an election that was boycotted by the ethnic Serb majority in northern Kosovo. Serbs in four of Kosovo’s northern municipalities have been protesting the results of the elections they didn’t participate in.
Since Kosovo formally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, the ethnic Serb population of Kosovo hasn’t recognized the government in Pristina and considers themselves part of Serbia.
After Friday’s incident, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken slammed Kosovo in a rare US rebuke of Pristina’s treatment of ethnic Serbs. “The United States strongly condemns the actions by the government of Kosovo to access municipal buildings in the north of Kosovo by force, actions it took against the advice of the United States and Kosovo’s European partners,” Blinken said.
On Monday, KFOR troops moved to disperse Serb protesters in Zvecan after issuing a warning. “You are causing unrest. You are putting yourself and your community at risk. Leave the area and go home — otherwise KFOR will be forced to intervene,” the warning said.
According to Radio Free Europe, a US state-funded media outlet, KFOR troops used tear gas and shock bombs. Videos of the incident also showed protesters throwing items at the KFOR soldiers.
Despite moving to clear out the crowd, KFOR claimed its soldiers were the victims of an “unprovoked” attack. “While countering the most active fringes of the crowd, several soldiers of the Italian and Hungarian KFOR contingent were the subject of unprovoked attacks and sustained trauma wounds with fractures and burns due to the explosion of incendiary devices,” KFOR said in a press release.
There are about 3,700 NATO troops deployed in Kosovo under KFOR, including over 600 US troops. NATO has had a presence in the region since its 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia that resulted in the creation of the state of Kosovo.