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EU Envoy Looks To Defuse Balkan Crisis

The European Union Special Envoy Miroslav Lajcak has urged Serbia and Kosovo to return to dialogue on normalizing ties to avoid a repeat of last month's violence in northern Kosovo.

Tensions between Belgrade and Pristina have spiked since September 24, when some 30 armed Serbs stormed the village of Banjska in Kosovo's predominantly ethnic Serb north and barricaded themselves in a Serbian Orthodox monastery.

Police recaptured the monastery after a shootout in which three attackers and a Kosovar police officer were killed.

"The attacks in Banjska have changed many things and they need to be properly investigated.... At the same time the dialogue must continue," Lajcak said on October 21 in Pristina.

He made the comment after talks with Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti that were also attended by the U.S. envoy for the Western Balkans Gabriel Escobar as well as top diplomats from Germany, France, and Italy.

Lajcak said they had strongly denounced "the terrorist attack against Kosovar police by armed individuals (that) constitutes a clear and unprecedented escalation."

He added that the attack also "very clearly underlined that both de-escalation and normalization are now more urgent than ever.”

According to a statement from the Kosovar government, Kurti told the Western diplomats that the top priority of his government is "the security of the state and citizens, borders, and territory."

After discussions with Kurti, the group traveled to Belgrade for talks with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

Both Serbia and Kosovo hope to join the EU, but Brussels wants them to normalize ties first.

Pristina and Belgrade are being urged to implement a 10-point plan put forward by the EU in February to end months of political crises.

Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic gave their approval at the time. However, a major sticking point has been the establishment of the Association of the Serb-Majority Municipalities, or ASM.

Brussels and Washington have urged Kosovo to allow for the creation of the ASM, to coordinate work on education, health care, land planning, and economic development at the local level.

Pristina fears the new association is an effort by Belgrade to create a Serb-ruled entity similar to Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In Pristina, Lajcak urged Kosovo "to move on the establishment of the Association of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo without further delay."

"Without this, there will be no progress on Kosovo's European path," he added.

In July, the EU suspended funding of some projects and halted visits of top diplomats for Kosovo's refusal to move forward on the ASM plan.

Later in Belgrade, Lajcak said, "We have to be very clear that we strongly condemn the terrorist attack on Kosovo police on the 24th of September."

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"All perpetrators need to be brought to justice, and we expect Serbia's full cooperation and concrete action in this regard," he added.

Serbia denied any role in the attack, saying it was organized by ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. Milan Radoicic, an ally of Vucic, has admitted to organizing and taking part in the incident at the Banjska monastery. He was briefly detained in Serbia and later released pending further proceedings.

After the meeting with the Western diplomats, Vucic said on Instagram that he believed "we will find a way out of the crisis in the coming period." He said he expected "important meetings" in Brussels in the days ahead. He did not elaborate.

Following the failure of the September talks between Kurti and Vucic and the recent flare-up, it's unclear when another round of meetings might take place.

Kosovo has called on Europe to sanction Serbia, which it blames for the September 24 attack, saying no talks could be further held and demanding higher security measures from Western powers for fear of an increased presence of Serb military forces along its border.

Amid the heightened tensions, NATO has reinforced KFOR, which normally has a troop strength of 4,500, with an additional 200 troops from Britain and more than 100 from Romania.

By RFE/RL

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