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Gunmen battle police in Kosovo monastery siege; four dead


By Fatos Bytyci

NORTH MITROVICA, Kosovo (Reuters) -Gunmen in armoured vehicles stormed a village in Kosovo on Sunday, battling police and barricading themselves in a Serbian Orthodox monastery in a resurgence of violence in the restive northern region.

Kosovo police said one officer and three of about 30 attackers were killed in shootouts around the village of Banjska.

Monks and pilgrims were locked in the monastery’s temple, the church said, as the siege raged for hours.

Ethnic Albanians form more than 90% of the population in Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, but Serbs are the majority in the north and there were clashes in May that injured dozens of protesters and NATO alliance peacekeepers.

The Serbs have never accepted Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence and still see Belgrade as their capital more than two decades after the Kosovo Albanian uprising against repressive Serbian rule.

It was unclear who exactly was behind Sunday’s violence, but Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla blamed “Serbia-sponsored criminals”.

“They are professionals, with military and police background,” said Kurti, urging their surrender.

The Serbian Orthodox Church’s diocese of Raska-Prizren, which includes Banjska, said men in an armoured vehicle stormed the monastery compound, forcing monks and visiting faithful to lock themselves inside the temple.

“Armed masked men move around the courtyard and occasional gunshots are heard,” it said in a statement.

“The Diocese strongly condemns the open violence being applied at the Serbian Orthodox Church religious facility, urging all sides to end the conflict as soon as possible.”


Police said the attackers first positioned heavy vehicles on a bridge into the village. They shot at police who approached them before heading to the nearby monastery.

Three police officers were injured in the ensuing attacks.

Serbian officials had no comment on the incident, though President Aleksandar Vucic was due to give a statement in the evening.

The head of the U.N. mission in Kosovo, Caroline Ziadeh, and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned the violence.

“More innocent lives are at risk in ongoing hostilities in the surroundings of Banjska Monastery,” Borrell said, adding that EU and NATO missions in Kosovo were liaising with authorities. “These attacks must stop immediately.”

NATO troops, along with members of the EU police force EULEX and Kosovo police, could be seen patrolling the road leading to Banjska, according to a Reuters reporter nearby.

Journalists were barred from entering the village.

Local media said Kosovo border police closed two crossings with Serbia.

Serbs in north Kosovo have long demanded the implementation of a European Union-brokered 2013 deal for the creation of an association of autonomous municipalities in their area.

EU-sponsored talks on normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo stalled last week, with the bloc blaming Kurti for failing to set up the association.

(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Andrew Cawthorne)

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