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10 Albanians arrested in Kosovo after attacking Serbs as ethnic tensions flare, drawing in Serbia & NATO

The 10 Albanians were detained on Monday in the city of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, after they attacked a group of Serbs visiting a government building on official business, the police reported. The city itself is predominantly Serb, but the incident happened in the southern part, which is overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Albanians.

Eight detainees were kept in custody and charged in connection with the alleged attack, while two others, identified as minors, were released, the report said. The police pledged to hold the underaged assailants accountable for their actions.

The incident highlights the ongoing escalation of ethnic tensions in Northern Kosovo, which ratcheted up last week due to a row between Kosovo and Serbia over the issue of the opposing sides’ non-recognition of the legitimacy of each others’ vehicle licence plates. Kosovo authorities decided to no longer recognize plates issued by Serbia, forcing drivers of vehicles who want to cross the border to buy temporary Kosovo-issued plates instead.

Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence and never treated its licence plates as legitimate, so it has been issuing temporary plates for cross-border traffic for a long time.

The Kosovo move was perceived as discriminatory by the local Serb population even as the authorities insisted it was reciprocal. Many Kosovar Serb truck drivers responded by blocking border checkpoints in the north in a gesture of protest. The Kosovo government deployed special police forces to the border in response, further fueling resentment of the Serbs.

As tensions in Kosovo grew, Belgrade got involved too, with President Aleksandar Vucic ordering a military bulid-up along the border and saying that troops would intervene if Kosovar Serbs were targeted with violence. Serbian military planes and helicopters were reported flying along the border in an apparent show of force.

Russia, Serbia’s long-time ally, showed its support by sending officials to inspect Serbian troops in the border region during the weekend. It also stated that the responsibility for the latest escalation was with the Kosovo side and called on them to return to the status quo.

Meanwhile, NATO’s KFOR mission in Kosovo on Monday ramped up patrols along the border, touting it as an attempt to de-escalate the situation. NATO played a key role in helping Kosovo split from Serbia in the late 1990s amid a bloody civil war. The breakaway region declared itself an independent nation in 2008 in a move that was not recognized by two members of the UN Security Council, Russia and China.

The row over licence plates is just one aspect of the festering conflict over Kosovo’s status. Kosovo authorities want to resolve the stand-off by having both sides drop the temporary licence plates scheme. Serbia rejected the proposed solution and demanded a withdrawal of Kosovo troops deployed to the border before EU-mediated talks on the issue could take place.

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