Gunmen in armoured vehicles have stormed a village in Kosovo, battling police and barricading themselves in a Serbian Orthodox monastery.
Kosovo police said one officer and three of about 30 attackers were killed in shootouts around the village of Banjska on Sunday.
Monks and pilgrims were locked in the monastery’s temple, the church said, as the siege raged for hours.
Ethnic Albanians form more than 90 percent of the population in Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, but Serbs are the majority in the north and there were clashes in May that injured dozens of protesters and NATO alliance peacekeepers.
The Serbs have never accepted Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence and still see Belgrade as their capital more than two decades after the Kosovo Albanian uprising against Serbian rule.
It was not immediately clear who was behind Sunday’s violence, but Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla blamed “Serbia-sponsored criminals”.
“They are professionals, with military and police backgrounds,” said Kurti, urging their surrender.
The Serbian Orthodox Church’s diocese of Raska-Prizren, which includes Banjska, said men in an armoured vehicle stormed the monastery compound, forcing monks and visiting faithful to lock themselves inside the temple.
“Armed masked men move around the courtyard and occasional gunshots are heard,” it said in a statement.
“The Diocese strongly condemns the open violence being applied at the Serbian Orthodox Church religious facility, urging all sides to end the conflict as soon as possible.”
Kosovo police said that two trucks with no licence plates had blocked a bridge at the entrance of the village. Three police units were sent to unblock it but came under fire from different positions with different weapons, hand grenades and bombs.
The latest incident has forced Kosovo to shut its border crossing with Serbia in Jarinje, according to the Albanian language news site published in Kosovo, Telegrafi.
Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani, who is in New York at the United Nations General Assembly, denounced the killing and the “attacks against the Republic of Kosovo’s sovereignty”.
“Such attacks testify once again [to] the destabilising power of the criminal bands organised from Serbia which for a long time … are destabilising Kosovo and the region,” she said.
There was no immediate comment from Serbian officials on the incident and the accusation. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was expected to give a statement later.
The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, fiercely condemned the “hideous attack” on Sunday, and called for the violence to cease.
“All facts about the attack need to be established. The responsible perpetrators must face justice,” he said.
Miroslav Lajčák, the EU special representative for Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, condemned the “horrific attack” on social media, adding that any form of violence is “absolutely unacceptable.”
Erion Veliaj, the mayor of Tirana, Albania, also issued a statement calling the incident “unparalleled barbarism”, according to the news website 360grade.
Meanwhile, KFOR, a NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, has said that it continues to closely monitor the situation in Banjska, and its troops were present nearby and ready to respond if required.
Tensions have been smouldering for months in the former Serbian province following Kosovo’s decision to install ethnic Albanian mayors in four Serb-majority municipalities last May.
The decision ignited clashes that left more than 90 NATO peacekeeping soldiers and some 50 Serb protesters injured in northern Kosovo.
Ethnic Albanians form more than 90 percent of the population in Kosovo, with Serbs being the majority only in its northern region, near the Serbian border, where a Serb-majority municipalities association is planned.
EU-sponsored talks on normalising relations between Kosovo and Serbia, two former wartime foes, stalled again last week, with Borrell blaming Kurti for failing to set up the association of Serb-majority municipalities, which would give them more autonomy.
In February, the EU put forward a 10-point plan to end months of political crises. Kurti and Vucic gave their approval at the time, but with some reservations that have still not been resolved.