Police in Belgrade have arrested a Kosovo Serb politician four days after he admitted being part of a paramilitary group involved in a gunfight with Kosovan security forces in which four people died.
The clash threatened to ignite a wider eruption of violence, after thousands of Serbian troops were deployed to the Kosovo border. They were withdrawn only after the threat of sanctions from the US.
Belgrade has denied any links to the 30-strong paramilitary unit, but pictures had surfaced in the Kosovan press showing Milan Radoičić, the deputy leader of the main Kosovo Serb party, walking around freely in Serbia despite admitting taking part in an ambush on Kosovo police on 24 September.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Serbian interior ministry said it had detained Radoičić for up to 48 hours, and searched his flat. “He was brought to the higher public prosecutor’s office in Belgrade with a criminal complaint,” the statement said.
Kosovo has insisted that Serbia was behind the armed Kosovo Serb group that ambushed a police patrol last month in the village of Banjska in northern Kosovo, killing a policeman, and that was then involved in a gunfight in which three Serb gunmen were killed, before taking refuge in Banjska’s monastery.
Pristina has pointed to the extensive range of modern, Serbian-made weapons the group was carrying, and produced a document to show that at least one of the weapons had been supplied by the Serbian army. The aim, Kosovan officials said, was to trigger an incident that would serve as a pretext for Serbian forces to intervene to “protect” ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo.
“It was well-planned, well-structured and prepared with the sole purpose of a Crimea-style annexation of the north of Kosovo,” the Kosovan president, Vjosa Osmani, told CNN on Tuesday. “They want to continue their plan of destabilising the Western Balkans and through this, to allow Putin to open a new front against the west in the Western Balkans. We are working with allies and partners and we will not let that happen.”
Radoičić has been a close ally of the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, in Kosovo. When Vučić met Kosovan Serbs in March 2022, Radoičić, who has been sanctioned by both the US and the UK for corruption, sat alongside him.
Vučić was asked on CNN on Monday whether his government would take legal action against Radoičić and all those responsible for the ambush.
“Of course, Serbia will hold accountable all the people that committed criminal deeds and that we might find on our territory … prosecutors will do their job,” Vučić said, but added that the incident was the result of Serbs wanting to “protect themselves”.
He said 4,000 Serbian troops had been pulled back from the border since US warnings of the consequences of escalation, leaving a garrison of 4,400. Pristina is also calling for 48 small police and army bases along the frontier to be demilitarised. The Nato peacekeeping force, Kfor, has been reinforced with a British battalion since the Banjska clash and the Serbian troop buildup.
Vučić and Osmani will attend a summit in Granada of 51 European leaders on Thursday and sources say there are efforts to get them into the same room despite political hostility between the two countries.
Radoičić’s lawyer, Goran Petronijević, could not be immediately reached for comment. On Sunday, he had said he was hoping the prosecutor’s office would not launch proceedings against his client as there were no legal grounds for prosecution.