Serbs in Kosovo mourn those killed in monastery shootout

FILE PHOTO: Kosovo police officers patrol a road to Banjska monastery, in the aftermath of a shooting incident, near Zvecan, Kosovo September 26, 2023. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski/File Photo

PRISTINA/BELGRADE (Reuters) -The main political party representing Serbs in northern Kosovo declared three days of mourning on Tuesday for people killed in a gunbattle in a monastery with Kosovo police, after the worst violence for years in the contested area.

Kosovo authorities say around 30 heavily armed Serbs stormed the village of Banjska on Sunday, battling police and barricading themselves into the Serbian Orthodox monastery. Police recaptured the monastery late on Sunday after three attackers and one police officer were killed.

The gunbattle has prompted new international concern over stability in Kosovo, which has an ethnic Albanian majority and declared independence from Serbia in 2008 after a guerrilla uprising and a 1999 NATO intervention.

Belgrade has never recognised the independence of its former province. Around 50,000 ethnic Serbs in the north reject rule from Pristina.

No group has come forward to claim responsibility for the attack or explain the motives of the gunmen.

Kosovo has accused Serbia of backing the armed militants; Serbia says Kosovo is to blame for mistreating residents in the Serb-majority area.

The Serb List party said all entertainment would be cancelled and flags lowered to half staff during the period of mourning from Tuesday to Thursday.

Serbia itself declared Wednesday a day of mourning "due to the tragic events", without explicitly endorsing the gunmen or their grievances.

"Serbia has no problem to say it condemns the murder of an (Kosovo) Albanian policeman, but we cannot remain mute, deaf and blind to the persecution and killing of Serbian people in Kosovo," Defence Minister Milos Vucevic said in Belgrade after meeting his Norwegian counterpart Bjoern Arild Gram.


Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic met the ambassadors of the United States, EU, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy in Belgrade on Tuesday about the incident. He said he had demanded that the international KFOR peacekeeping force "take care of all security issues in the north of Kosovo instead of (Kosovo Prime Minister Albin) Kurti's police".

Kosovo police said on Tuesday they arrested two more suspects in a hotel in the predominantly Serb north of the country and seized a cache of weapons including assault rifles and a heavy machine gun.

Police had also searched houses in Banjska on Monday and displayed weapons and equipment they said they had seized.

Police also released drone footage they said showed a group of armed men resting inside the monastery compound on Sunday.

It said one of them was Milan Radojcic, a Kosovo Serb politician and one of the leaders of the Serb List party.

Neither Radojcic nor the party could be reached by telephone or email for comment about the video. The party has made no comment on the incident other than the declaration of mourning.

Reuters could not independently verify the identity of the man highlighted in the video. Reuters confirmed the location as the Banjska Monastery, but was not able to independently verify the date when the video was filmed.

Serb List was the dominant Serb party in Kosovo's parliament before Serbs from the north and those loyal to Belgrade boycotted Kosovo's institutions nearly a year ago. It is closely allied with Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party.

Two Serbs captured in the gunbattle appeared in court on Tuesday for a hearing in Kosovo's capital Pristina.

Dejan A. Vasic, a lawyer who represents Dusan Maksimovic, a suspect in the shooting, said he planned to appeal against the 30-day detention given to his client.

The court said a third suspected gunman who was wounded had already appeared before a judge in hospital, where he was charged with participating in a terrorist attack and remanded in custody for one month.

(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci and Aleksandar Vasovic; Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Christina Fincher and Alison Williams)

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