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news 29 Jun 12

Border Clashes Mar Battle of Kosovo Commemoration

Clashes between Kosovo police and Serbs on the border at Merdare - and pelting of Serb buses in Pristina - overshadow Serbian celebrations of Battle of Kosovo in 1389.

Fatmir Aliu BIRN Merdare / Gracanica / Gazimestan

Over 30 Kosovo Police officers and at least 20 Serbs were injured in unrest at the Kosovo-Serbia border, after a group of Serbs entered Kosovo without the permission of the authorities to attend celebrations marking an historic Serbian battle in the 14th century.

The Minister of Interior, Bajram Rexhepi, said that 32 police officers were injured in the police operation aimed at deporting Serbs who entered Kosovo illegally. “We have had to close the border for that reason,” the minister said.

Serbian media report that at least 20 Serbs were injured at the border, accusing the Kosovo Police of shooting at them after violence erupted.

Violence erupted on Thursday morning at Merdare after police stopped a group of Serbs traveling in two buses.

All were fans of the Belgrade Football Club, Partizan. The buses were spotted inside Kosovo in the municipality of Vushtrri some 15 kilometres north of the capital, Pristina.

After Kosovo police found out they had entered the country without permits from the authorities, they decided to deport them back to Serbia via the Merdare border crossing.

Kosovo police say that after the buses crossed to the other side of the border in Serbia, the fans left the buses and started throwing stones at the Kosovo side.

Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga said the men had attacked the Kosovo police with the intention of destabilizing the security situation.

“This attack on the Kosovo Police with heavy objects and firearms is intolerable and represents an attack on the constitutional order of Kosovo," she said.

"We shall defend with determination the country’s democratic system and will prevent any attempt at destabilization," she added.

Kosovo police couldn't confirm whether its forces fired shots during the border clashes in Merdare.

Meanwhile, the Serbs said they were also attacked.

Doctors in Gracanica, a mainly Serb municipality close to the capital, Pristina, said they had treated 17 injured people after Molotov cocktails and stones were thrown at the Serb buses.

NATO's mission in Kosovo, KFOR, also said Molotov cocktails had been thrown at the Serb convoy as it passed through Pristina  and condemned the violence.

"This shameful action is contrary to the integrity of the maintenance of a safe and secure environment for all people in Kosovo," it said in a statement.

The Serbs were coming to Kosovo to commemorate the Battle in Kosovo, a key date in Serbian history, when the medieval Serbian state confronted the might of the Ottoman Empire.

Meanwhile, as in previous years, the ceremony started with a service at the medieval Serbian Orthodox monastery of Gracanica.

Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Irinej, who led the service at the Gracanica Monastery, said that Kosovo remained Serbia’s Jerusalem and called on Serbs not to forget that.

“Kosovo was and is a Serbian land, the Jerusalem of Serbs…  and with our presence [in Gracanica] we are proving this - that Kosovo is and will remain a land of Serbs,” he said in the liturgy, which was greeted with applause by the pilgrims.

“Kosovo teaches us about unity, to be united for goodness. We may not ever forget it [Kosovo], because if we do forget, we ourselves will be forgotten,” Patriarch Irinej added.

After the service, thousands of pilgrims traveled on to Gazimestan, near Pristina, site of the Battle of Kosovo.

The battle resulted in the defeat of Serbian Tsar Lazar at the hands of the Ottoman Sultan, eventually resulting in the loss of Serbian independence for more than four centuries.

Though a defeat, the date remains hallowed in the Serbian calendar, inspiring some of the nation's most celebrated epic poems.

Even in Gazimestan the situation was tense at time, especially after Kosovo police searched the pilgrims and ordered those wearing insignia deemed to carry messages of hatred to leave them on the road.

Some Serbs who didn’t obey the orders to remove T-Shirts and other material seen as “political propaganda” were briefly detained. However, to lower tensions, they were released afterwards to join the ceremony at the monument.

The Kosovo-Serbia border at Merdare was reopened some hours later at 15h00.

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