Serbian tennis superstar Novak Djokovic brought the political controversy and communal tensions in his nation into the limelight at the French Open yesterday following his first-round victory.
“Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence,” the 22-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic wrote on a camera lens in Serbian after his match.
Around 25 NATO peacekeeping soldiers defending three town halls in northern Kosovo were injured in clashes with Serb protesters in the town of Zvecan, where Djokovic's father grew up. Serbia’s president put the army on the highest level of combat alert. Serbian authorities said 52 protesters were injured in clashes.
KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping mission to Kosovo, condemned the violence.
"While countering the most active fringes of the crowd, several soldiers of the Italian and Hungarian KFOR contingent were the subject of unprovoked attacks and sustained trauma wounds with fractures and burns due to the explosion of incendiary devices," it said in a statement.
The tense situation developed after ethnic Albanian mayors took office in northern Kosovo's Serb majority area after elections the Serbs had boycotted.
In Zvecan, one of the towns, Kosovo police - staffed by ethnic Albanians after Serbs quit the force last year - sprayed pepper gas to repel a crowd of Serbs who broke through a security barricade and tried to force their way into the municipality building, witnesses said.
Serb protesters in Zvecan threw tear gas and stun grenades at NATO soldiers. Serbs also clashed with police in Zvecan and spray-painted NATO vehicles with the letter "Z", referring to a Russian sign used in war in Ukraine.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Serbia and its traditional ally Russia do not recognise Kosovo’s independence, and Moscow has blocked the country’s bid to become a member of the United Nations.
"As a son of a man born in Kosovo, I feel the need to give my support to our people and to the entire Serbia," Djokovic told a news briefing after his match at the Roland Garros tournament.
"My stance is clear: I am against wars, violence and any kind of conflict, as I’ve always stated publicly. I empathise with all people, but the situation with Kosovo is a precedent in international law," Djokovic said.
Ethnic Albanians make up more than 90% of the population in Kosovo as a whole, but northern Serbs have long demanded the implementation of an EU-brokered 2013 deal for the creation of an association of autonomous municipalities in their area.