PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovo’s prime minister offered Thursday to hold new mayoral elections in four Serb-majority municipalities and reduce police there in an effort to defuse tensions with neighboring Serbia that flared anew last month.
Ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo boycotted mayoral elections in the four municipalities in April as part of a campaign for greater autonomy, and they now object to the ethnic Albanian mayors chosen in the polls. Neighboring Serbia has backed calls for the mayors to step down.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said in a social media post that he would be willing to hold fresh mayoral elections if at least 20 percent of the electorate in the municipalities support a petition for the polls. He said he would instruct the four mayors elected in April to hand their posts to any newly elected candidates.
He also offered to reduce the special police forces sent to guard municipal buildings when the mayors took office, which sparked violence in late May when at least 30 international peacekeepers and more than 50 ethnic Serbs were injured in clashes.
Serbia and its former province Kosovo have been at odds for decades, with Belgrade refusing to recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. Western efforts to resolve the crisis have increased recently, to avert possible instability in the Balkans as war rages in Ukraine.
Violent clashes in late May and the detention of the police officers by Serbia in mid-June stirred fears of a renewal of a 1998-99 conflict that left more than 10,000 people dead, mostly Kosovar Albanians.
Serbia and ethnic Serbs in Kosovo have demanded that Kosovo’s special police units pull out from the northern region bordering Serbia, and that several ethnic Serbs who were detained in Kosovo in recent weeks be released. The Serbian government also heightened army readiness and threatened military intervention over alleged torture of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo.
Kurti’s move follows Serbia’s release of three police officers from Kosovo on Monday who were detained near the disputed border between the former war foes. Serbia says the three crossed into the country from Kosovo in mid-June, while Kosovar authorities insisted they were kidnapped inside Kosovo and transferred to a Serbian prison. They still faced further legal action on charges of illegal possession of weapons and explosive devices, the court said.
Also Thursday, Kosovo’s government declared two local organizations in the north linked to the ethnic Serb minority — Civil Defense and Northern Brigade — to be terrorist organizations for threatening violence against citizens and public institutions.
Kurti called on Belgrade to try to put a lid on tensions and to reduce the readiness of its armed forces along the border with Kosovo. “De-escalation of the situation and normalization of relations is doable, you have my readiness and willingness,” Kurti said.
Last week the European Union summoned the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia to Brussels to urge them to defuse the situation.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that the EU’s executive commission and member countries were ready to take political and financial measures against Serbia and Kosovo if they did not commit to a de-escalation.
Borrell on Monday repeated that holding fresh local elections in four Serb-majority municipalities was essential to reducing the tensions.
The U.S. and most EU members have recognized 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.
Associated Press writer Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.