Kosovo has demanded the release of three border patrol officers, accusing Serbia of ‘kidnapping’.
Serbian authorities said they had captured three “fully armed” Kosovo police officers inside Serbia near their mutual border, while Kosovo officials said the three were “abducted” while patrolling Kosovo territory.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti blamed Serbia for abducting the men and demanded their release on Wednesday. They were arrested within 300 meters (330 yards) of Kosovan territory near the border, he said.
“The entry of Serbian forces into the territory of Kosovo is aggression and its purpose is escalation and destabilization,” Kurti wrote on his Facebook page.
Kosovo’s Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla also condemned the “kidnapping” which he said was “in violation of any agreement and against international norms”.
The minister called on the international community “not to immediately increase pressure on Serbia to release our police officers but to stop its provocations”.
But Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said the three were arrested within 1.8 kilometers (one mile) of Serbian territory near the village of Ginjilica. He also accused Kurti of inciting violence.
“We are at the crossroads of whether we will get peace or not … and there is one person in the Balkans who wants to provoke conflict at any cost – and that is Albin Kurti,” Vucic said in a live TV broadcast.
He rejected Kurti’s accusation that Serbian police had entered Kosovo, saying, “They haven’t set foot there.”
‘It’s hard to get back to normal’
Serbia also said the officers were armed with automatic weapons and in full military gear, including GPS devices, maps and other equipment.
A video released by Serbian police shows masked men taking away a group of men in handcuffs.
Vucic said Belgrade is willing to submit all evidence and accept an international investigation into the arrests.
He added that his government may move some military forces stationed five kilometers (3.1 miles) from the border inside Serbia to defuse tensions. “It’s going to be hard to get back to normal,” said Vucic.
In response to the arrests, Kosovo banned all vehicles with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, an interior ministry official told Reuters news agency.
The detention could further raise tensions in Kosovo’s predominantly Serb north, which borders Serbia and has seen violence in recent weeks.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, nearly a decade after an uprising by the 90-percent ethnic Albanian majority against Serbian rule.
Belgrade, along with its main allies China and Russia, has refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence, effectively barring it from a seat at the United Nations.
In 1999, a NATO bombing campaign drove Serbian security forces out of Kosovo, but Belgrade continues to consider it a southern province.
Violence erupted last month when 30 NATO peacekeepers and 52 Serbs were injured in clashes in four main Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo, just outside Serbia.
It erupted after Serbs rallied against ethnic Albanian mayors who walked into office after local elections in which turnout was just 3.5 percent. The Serbs of the area boycotted the elections.