The situation in northern Kosovo is dramatic and chaotic. Gunmen riding in armored vehicles today stormed the village in Bansko, inhabited mainly by Serbs, clashed with police and stormed the monastery of Saint Stephen, holding hostage the monks and dozens of pilgrims who were visiting the monastery at the time.

Kosovo police announced that a police officer and three of the nearly 30 attackers were killed during shootings around the village of Bansko.

Monks and pilgrims have been locked inside the church of the Serbian Orthodox monastery as the siege has raged for hours.

The Serbian Orthodox diocese of Raska-Prizren, which includes Bansko, said men in an armored vehicle broke into the monastery, forcing monks and visiting worshipers to lock themselves inside the church.

“Armed masked men are roaming the area and occasional gunshots are heard,” it said in a statement.

NATO peacekeeping force ready to intervene

The law stipulates that the Kosovo authorities cannot intervene in Orthodox churches and monasteries without the consent of the Church. Extraordinary circumstances, such as a fire or an earthquake, are excluded.

KFOR, NATO’s peacekeeping force in Kosovo, said it was “present and ready to intervene if requested”, clarifying that the Kosovo police were responsible for managing the situation.

Resurgence of violence in the already restive north

Albanians make up the vast majority of the 1.8 million inhabitants of Kosovo, a former province of Serbia. However, some 50,000 Serbs make up the majority in the north, where clashes in May left dozens of protesters and NATO peacekeepers injured.

Serbs 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 is not clear who is behind the violent incidents that broke out today, but Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Interior Minister Jellal Svekla blamed “criminals financed by Serbia”. “They are professionals, with a military and police background,” Kurti said, urging them to surrender.

Police said the attackers first placed heavy vehicles on a bridge in the village. They fired at policemen who approached them, before heading to the nearby monastery. In addition to the victims, three police officers were injured in the shooting, according to Kosovo police.

Local media reported that Kosovo’s border police closed two crossing points with Serbia.