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Armed militants stormed a village in Kosovo on Sunday, shattering months of relative calm in the former Serbian region whose disputed status has fuelled conflict between ethnic Serbs and Albanians.
Around 30 fighters in unmarked, armoured vehicles decended in the early hours on Banjska, a village near Mitrovica in the north of Kosovo, which has an ethnic Serbian majority, killing one police officer.
The gunmen then barricaded themselves into a Serbian orthodox monastery in a stand-off with the authorities. Monks and pilgrims remained inside the buildings as the siege took place, according to church officials.
The clashes at the monastery will further complicate efforts to mediate between Kosovo and Serbia, raising the spectre of further bloodshed and costly political antagonism between the two EU membership applicants.
The ethnicity of the attackers was not immediately confirmed, although Kosovo prime minister Albin Kurti said in an early afternoon statement that they were doing the bidding of Serbia.
“It is not ordinary Kosova Serb citizens but Serbian state-supported troops perpetrating these terrorist attacks,” Kurti said on the social media platform X. Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic was scheduled to deliver a televised speech later on Sunday.
Kosovo broke away from Serbia unilaterally in 2008, a move that Serbia and several hundred thousand ethic Serbs in Kosovo have not recognised. A tentative agreement in March almost put an end to decades of conflict but it quickly fell apart over disputed local elections in four northern Kosovo municipalities — the only areas of the country where Serbs form a majority.
Speaking to the UN General Assembly earlier this week, Vucic condemned the west, saying it was complicit in violating the territorial integrity of Serbia. He also warned that Belgrade would never accept the sovereignty and independence of “so-called Kosovo”.
Kurti, meanwhile, has refused to participate in normalisation talks, arranged by the EU, unless the recognition of Kosovo is included. This has prompted a repeated warning from Brussels that his stance could cost both Pristina and Belgrade their EU membership.
The Serbian Orthodox Church’s diocese of Raška-Prizren, which includes Banjska, said fighting was continuing around the monastery seized by fighters. “Armed masked men move around the courtyard and occasional gunshots are heard,” the diocese said.
The EU and UN condemned the violence. Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, called for the perpetrators to face justice for a “hideous attack”. Borrell said in a statement. “All facts about the attack need to be established,” he said. “More innocent lives are at risk . . . These attacks must stop immediately.”
Eulex, the EU mission that acts as the second security responder in Kosovo, is on the ground and in close contact with the authorities and Nato’s peacekeeping force Kfor, Borrell added. Journalists were barred from entering the village.