Kosovo has demanded the release of three border patrol officers accusing Serbia of ‘kidnapping’.
Serbian authorities said they captured three “fully armed” Kosovo police officers inside Serbia near their mutual border, while Kosovo officials said the trio were “kidnapped” on Kosovo territory as they patrolled the area.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti blamed Serbia for abducting the men and demanded their release on Wednesday. He said they were arrested 300 metres (330 yards) inside Kosovan territory near the border.
“The entry of Serbian forces into the territory of Kosovo is aggression and aimed at escalation and destabilisation,” Kurti wrote on his Facebook page.
Kosovo Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla also denounced the “kidnapping” that he said “violates any agreement and is against international norms”.
The minister called on the international community “to urgently increase pressure on Serbia not only to release our police officers but also stop its provocations”.
But Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic said the three were arrested as far as 1.8km (one mile) inside Serbian territory near the village of Gnjilica. He also accused Kurti of inciting violence.
“We are at the crossroads whether we will have peace or not … and there’s one man in the Balkans who wants to incite conflicts at any cost – and that is Albin Kurti,” Vucic said in a live TV broadcast.
He rejected Kurti’s accusation that the Serbian police entered Kosovo, saying, “They did not even set a foot there.”
‘Difficult to return to normalcy’
Serbia also said the officers were armed with automatic weapons and in full military gear with GPS devices, maps and other equipment.
A video published by Serbian police showed masked men hauling off a group of men in handcuffs.
Vucic said Belgrade was willing to submit all the evidence and accept an international inquiry into the arrests.
He added his government may relocate some of its military currently stationed five kilometres (3.1 miles) away from the boundary to garrisons inside Serbia to defuse tensions. “It will be difficult to return to normalcy,” said Vucic.
Kosovo banned all vehicles with Serbia’s licence plates from entering its territory in response to the arrests, an interior ministry official told the Reuters news agency.
The detentions may further raise tensions in the predominantly Serb northern part in Kosovo, which borders Serbia and has seen spurts of 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 key allies China and Russia, has refused to recognise Kosovo’s independence, effectively preventing it from having a seat at the United Nations.
In 1999, a NATO bombing campaign drove Serbian security forces out of Kosovo but Belgrade has continued to regard it as a southern province.
Violence flared last month when 30 NATO peacekeepers and 52 Serbs were injured in clashes in four predominantly Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo just outside Serbia.
It erupted after Serbs rallied against ethnic Albanian mayors who moved into their offices following a local vote in which turnout was just 3.5 percent. Serbs in the area boycotted the election.