A police raid targeting organised crime in Serb dominated northern Kosovo sparked violence and heightened diplomatic tensions on Tuesday after a Russian diplomat and several Serb police officers were arrested in an operation that Kosovar police said was met with armed resistance.
The operation targeted about 30 people, including 19 policemen and four customs officers, suspected of smuggling, corruption and “organised crime”, according to the Kosovar authorities.
Kosovo Special Forces reported encountering “armed resistance” when they entered the towns of Mitrovica and Zubin Potok, with local Serbs setting up barricades to hinder the police action and witnesses reporting an exchange of gunfire.
Five policemen were wounded during the clashes and two members of the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) were arrested and slightly injured, UNMIK said.
Kosovar police also reported the arrest of a Russian UN employee who, according to them, tried to block the police from entering the area by placing his diplomatic vehicle in a barricade in Zubin Potok. He was released in the afternoon, said UNMIK.
The arrest of a Russian national has angered Moscow, which denounced it as “an outrageous act” and a violation of his diplomatic immunity.
UNMIK, which demanded the immediate release of its two employees, asked the Kosovar authorities on Wednesday to explain the use of force against them even though they enjoyed diplomatic immunity.
In a statement, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said the local police detained a Russian citizen “who claimed to be a diplomat and tried to hinder police action.”
Kosovan authorities have also stressed that the police’s actions were not solely directed at Serbian targets and that along with the 11 Serbs arrested, four Albanians and four Bosniaks were also detained.
Meanwhile, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic called the arrests an attempt to ‘criminalise’ and ‘intimidate’ the Serb population and ordered Serbian troops to be on combat alert in case tensions escalate.
European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said Brussels was calling for “utmost restraint” between the sides, while UNMIK urged “all parties to abide by the principles of rule of law and dignity for all to life and liberty, and to help restore calm and security in the area,” Radio Free Liberty reports.
Neither Serbia nor Russian recognize Kosovo’s independence, which was proclaimed from Serbia in 2008. Negotiations to normalise relations between the two sides have stalled for months, and a recent summit in Berlin, convened by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, failed to yield tangible results.