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Clashes in Kosovo,11 Italian KFOR soldiers wounded

High tension over Serb protests against Albanian mayors

29 May, 21:15
(ANSA) - BELGRADE, 29 MAG - Renewed tensions in northern Kosovo threaten to precipitate the situation in the heart of the Balkans, with the ethnic clash escalating worryingly today into violent clashes between NATO Force soldiers and Serb protesters opposing the entry into office of new ethnic Albanian mayors in the four largest Serb-majority municipalities in the north. The new serious incidents, following last Friday's, occurred in Zvecan, where the Kfor military, after repeated warnings and calls for the lifting of blockades that also prevented the movement of local police vehicles, confronted Serb demonstrators who had been besieging the local town hall for hours to prevent the new mayor from taking office. In the fierce clashes, the military made extensive use of blackjacks, tear gas and deafening bombs, while the Serbs responded with dense throwing of rocks, bottles, Molotov cocktails and other objects. The toll of the battle was very heavy, with dozens of NATO soldiers wounded, 11 of them Italians from the Ninth Alpine Regiment L'Aquila. At first there was talk of 41 soldiers involved, but in the evening the Kfor command reported about 25 soldiers wounded. Three of our compatriots suffered fairly serious injuries-mostly burns from throwing molotov cocktails and fractures-but their lives are not in danger. The commander of the Kfor mission, Italian General Angelo Michele Ristuccia, expressing solidarity with the wounded soldiers, let it be known that he is personally following the evolution of the situation and assured that the NATO contingent remains "impartial." Immediate solidarity and participation came from Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni - who condemned the attack as "unacceptable and irresponsible," warning that no other such actions will be tolerated - and from Foreign and Defense Ministers Antonio Tajani and Guido Crosetto, who expressed the institutions' closeness to the wounded soldiers and their wishes for a speedy recovery. "It is crucial," Meloni stressed, "that further unilateral actions by the Kosovo Authorities are avoided and that all parties involved immediately take a step back by contributing to the easing of tensions. The Italian government's commitment to peace and stability in the Western Balkans is maximum and we will continue to work with our allies." Several dozen Serbs were injured in clashes in Zvecan, one of four Serb-majority northern municipalities.

The others are Zubin Potok, Leposavic, and Mitrovica North.

In these other localities, too, the Serb population is contesting the election of the new ethnic Albanian mayors in the April 23 local vote, a poll boycotted by the Serbs and whose legitimacy is also contested by Belgrade because of the extremely low turnout of just over 3 percent. It is unacceptable, Serbs argue, for mayors representing 2 percent of the population to govern cities whose inhabitants are 98 percent ethnic Serbs. The clashes came at the end of a hectic day filled with meetings, contacts and phone calls in an attempt to defuse what appears to be a bomb ready to explode at any moment with unpredictable consequences. The leadership in Pristina-President Vjosa Osmani and Prime Minister Albin Kurti-while stressing the regularity of the April 23 vote, point the finger at Belgrade and the illegal structures it maintains in northern Kosovo.

Structures, they argue, that have allegedly turned into criminal gangs attacking Kosovo police, KFOR soldiers and journalists, and to which they place the entire responsibility for the violence and persistent instability in the north. Serbian authorities for their part accuse Pristina of wanting to occupy the north with the aim of expelling the local Serbian population. A wall-to-wall situation that seems to have no way out. And proving this are the unsuccessful outcomes of the numerous meetings over the past few days and hours that Belgrade and Pristina have had with representatives of the international community -- EU, US, Quint, NATO, OSCE --, all peppered with calls for calm and to avoid further escalation. U.S. Ambassador to Pristina Jeff Hovernier proposed that the new mayors work not from their offices in their respective town halls but in other buildings. However, a solution branded as "unacceptable" by Kosovo Deputy Prime Minister Besnik Bislimi. (ANSA).

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