BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbian authorities said Wednesday they captured three “fully armed” Kosovo police officers inside Serbia near their mutual border, while Kosovo officials said the trio were “kidnapped” on Kosovo territory as they patrolled the area.
The latest incident sharply raises tensions between Serbia and its former province. Serbia had put its troops on the border on the highest state of alert amid a series of recent clashes between Kosovo Serbs on one side, and Kosovo police and NATO-led peacekeepers on the other.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said the “kidnapping” of the police officers represents an “act of aggression aimed at escalating and destabilizing” his country and called on the international community to react.
“We call for the immediate release of the three kidnapped police officers and invite international actors to denounce Serbia’s act of aggression,” he said in a statement.
On the other hand, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic praised “the professionalism” of the Serbian police officers who arrested the Kosovo officers, and rejected claims that the Serbian officers crossed the border in the process.
The populist Serbian leader, who was speaking in an interview with the state Serbian television broadcaster, accused Kurti of “seeking war” and said that the region is “at the crossroads” between war and peace.
Kosovo police said in a statement Wednesday that the three police officers called for assistance after they had seen gunmen wearing masks on Kosovo territory near the border north of the capital, Pristina.
When other members of the security forces arrived at the location, they found an empty police car and suspected that the three officers had been “kidnapped” by Serb forces. Kosovo authorities didn’t provide any other details about why they believe the officers were abducted.
Serbian security forces published photos of three men in uniforms lying face down on a field on the edge of a forest, with machine guns, other weapons and radio equipment placed near them.
A video showed the three blindfolded and handcuffed men being led by Serbian officers to parked police cars.
Serbia’s chief negotiator with Kosovo, Petar Petkovic, denied that the police officers were kidnapped and insisted they were “deep in Serbia’s territory,” and in full combat gear. He said Serbia was ready to offer evidence for its assertion and called for an international investigation.
He said “the terrorist gang” was arrested “because they crossed the administrative line in full combat gear.”
Kosovo Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla denounced the “kidnapping,” which he said, “violates any agreement and is against international norms.”
The minister called on the international community “to urgently increase pressure on Serbia not only to release our police officers but also stop its provocations.”
Kosovo police have contacted NATO-led international peacekeepers, known as KFOR, and other security institutions and international organizations to call for the release of the officers.
The incident comes a day after Kosovo police arrested in northern Mitrovica — an area mostly populated by the ethnic Serb minority — an alleged organizer of Serb protests in the country’s north, including one last month in which 30 NATO-led peacekeepers were injured.
Tensions in Kosovo flared anew late last month, including violent clashes.
The tensions escalated when 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 and its former province Kosovo have been at odds for decades, with Belgrade refusing to recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. The latest violence near their shared border has stirred fears of a renewal of a 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo that claimed more than 10,000 lives, mostly ethnic Albanians.
Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.