25 Sep 2023

Kosovo police surround 30 gunmen in monastery after officer shot

7:34 am on 25 September 2023
Kosovo's police officers stand guard at the entrance of the village of Banjska on September 24, 2023, after one policeman was killed and another wounded in north Kosovo early Sunday. According to authorities, the incident occurred during an armed attack on a police patrol as it approached a blocked road near the border with Serbia. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

Kosovo's police officers stand guard at the entrance of the village of Banjska on 24 September 2023. Photo: AFP / STRINGER

By Marita Moloney, BBC News

A Kosovo police officer and three gunmen have been killed after about 30 attackers stormed a village before barricading themselves in a monastery, police say.

Prime Minister Albin Kurti has urged the gunmen in the village of Banjska near the Serbian border to surrender.

He blamed "Serbia-sponsored criminals". Serbia has not commented.

The Nato-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo said it has troops in the area and is ready to respond if required.

Sunday's shooting began at about 3am (local time) after police said they arrived in Banjska where a blockade had been reported.

Officers were attacked from several different positions with "an arsenal of firearms, including hand grenades and shoulder-fired missiles", they said in a statement.

"We can see armed people in uniforms ... they are firing on us and we are firing back," Kosovo police official Veton Elshan told AFP.

Kurti said they were "professionals, with military and police background".

The Serbia Orthodox Church said that gunmen had stormed a monastery in the village, located in Leposavic, where pilgrims from the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad were staying.

Priests and pilgrims locked themselves inside the monastery's temple for safety, the Diocese of Raska-Prizren said.

"Armed masked men move around the courtyard and occasional gunshots are heard," it said in a statement condemning the violence.

Tensions have run high in Kosovo, after violent clashes followed a disputed local election in May and EU-mediated political talks designed to stabilise the situation have stalled.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008 but Serbia - along with Belgrade's key allies China and Russia - does not recognise it.

Many Serbs consider it the birthplace of their nation. But of the 1.8 million people living in Kosovo, 92 percent are ethnic Albanians and only 6 percent are ethnic Serbs.

The EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned what he called the "hideous attack" and said those responsible must be brought to justice.

But Kosovo's foreign minister, Donika Gervalla-Schwarz, criticised Borrell's statement, saying it did not express support for the police nor use the word "terrorists" to describe the attackers.

It comes after the latest EU-mediated talks collapsed last week, with Borrell blaming Kurti for failing to set up the association of Serb-majority municipalities which would give them more autonomy.

Unrest engulfed northern Kosovo in May after Kosovo Albanian mayors were installed in majority-Serb areas, after Serb residents boycotted local polls.

Nato deployed an additional 700 troops to Kosovo to deal with unrest in the northern town Zvecan following the elections.

Some 30 Nato peacekeepers and more than 50 Serb protesters were hurt in the ensuing clashes.

This story was originally published by the BBC.