PARIS — A Lithuanian customs officer in Kosovo working for a European Union mission there was shot dead today in the Serb-dominated north of the country, European Union officials said.
The European Union mission that oversees judicial affairs in northern Kosovo said in a statement that the shooting took place early today during a routine staff rotation. It said a murder investigation was underway. Bernd Borchardt, head of the mission, known as EULEX, called the attack an unequivocal “ambush,” said Stojan Pelko, a European Union spokesman.
Pelko said by telephone from Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, that six customs officers traveling in two cars were returning from a border crossing when one of the cars was fired on, critically wounding the Lithuanian customs officer. He was dead on arrival at a hospital. The Associated Press, citing a hospital chief, said the man had been shot in the chest and leg. Pelko said the other officer in the car, a Czech, had no visible wounds, but had been taken to the hospital.
He said it was not known how many people were involved in the attack and that the area had been sealed by police officers. “We don’t know who shot him, and the perpetrator escaped,” he said. “We are asking citizens for any information they can provide and we are looking for witnesses.”
The European Union mission condemned the attack, calling it “an act of cowardly violence.” The bloc’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, condemned the killing and called on Serbs and ethnic Albanians to redouble their efforts to press ahead with an agreement aimed at overcoming ethnic enmities in the country.
The shooting came as Kosovo and Serbia have been trying to carry out a power-sharing accord the two countries signed in April. The agreement, under which Serbia agreed to recognize Pristina’s authority over the police and the courts in the north in return for greater autonomy for Kosovo’s northern Serbs, has been greeted with deep ambivalence and in some cases outright hostility by some of the north’s 50,000 Serbs.
While the agreement stops short of Serbs recognizing Kosovo’s independence, which Belgrade vehemently opposes, it has been lauded by the European Union, which brokered it, as a breakthrough that could help overcome ethnic divisions and cement peace in the region. Some Serbs, however, have vowed to resist the accord, boycott municipal elections planned for early November and leave Kosovo.
The European Union mission has been overseeing the police, courts and customs in Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008. While a majority of Serbs reject Kosovo’s independence, the north in particular has remained a conflict zone because, until recently, a majority of Serbs there lived almost entirely under Belgrade’s authority. Serb flags fly in the Serbian part of Mitrovica, locals drink Serbian brew and Belgrade has paid the salaries of municipal officials.
Georgios Makeroufas, a political adviser to the European Union’s Rule of Law Mission in northern Kosovo, said from Kosovo that it was too early to assess the fallout from the killing or whether it would further inflame ethnic tensions. But he stressed that so far, “Things are relatively quiet.”
But analysts said the European Union faced a daunting challenge to ensure that the power-sharing agreement was put into effect, with resistance from many Serbs in the north, as well as from a vocal minority of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, who argue that the accord entrenches divisions.
In a sign of the obstacles ahead, staff members in the offices granting Kosovo identification cards in the north have had hand grenades lobbed at their homes, while one senior administrator was shot in the leg late last year.