MITROVICA, KOSOVO – Prominent Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic was killed in a brazen drive-by shooting on Tuesday that could reignite ethnic tensions in the region.
The assassination of Ivanovic — who was facing a retrial on war crimes charges over the 1990s Kosovo conflict — occurred on the very day that Belgrade and Pristina resumed talks on normalizing ties after a hiatus of more than a year.
Marco Djuric, the Serbian government official in charge of Kosovo, described the murder as a “criminal, terrorist act against the entire Serbian people.”
Ivanovic, 64, was shot dead by gunmen firing from a car as he arrived at the headquarters of his party in the flash point town of Mitrovica at about 8:15 am, according to police.
The moderate politician, who had publicly spoken out against Belgrade’s policies in Kosovo, was hit by five bullets and died on the spot, his lawyer Nebojsa Vlajic said.
Kosovo President Hashim Thaci and the government in Pristina “strongly” condemned the assassination, as did representatives of the United Nations and the United States in Kosovo.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini spoke with Thaci and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and “called on all sides to show calm and restraint and allow the rule of law and justice to take its course,” a statement from her office said.
Vucic called an emergency meeting of his national security council to discuss the killing, national broadcaster RTS reported.
Following the assassination, the Serb-populated northern part of ethnically divided Mitrovica was unusually calm and its streets deserted.
Public prosecutor Shyqri Syla said that investigators were at the scene, but that it was not yet known who was behind the attack.
Police said they found a burnt-out car that was presumably used in the shooting.
An EU-backed Kosovo court sentenced Ivanovic in 2015 to a nine-year jail term after it found him guilty of encouraging the killings of captured ethnic Albanian civilians in Kosovska Mitrovica in April 1999.
In February last year, a Pristina appeals court quashed the sentence and ordered a retrial for Ivanovic, who had been in detention since his arrest in January 2014 until the acquittal.
In May, the social-democrat politician and father of four told a reporter that his private car had been set on fire in front of his home, describing it as an attempt to silence him.
In local polls in October, he was elected a deputy on northern Mitrovica’s municipal council, running against a Belgrade-backed party.
“Serbs are more afraid of Serbs than Albanians,” Ivanovic — a rare Kosovo Serb in that he spoke Albanian — said at the time. “Serb people are afraid to raise their voice” against Belgrade’s policy.
Mitrovica is a town of 85,000 people where tensions remain high between the majority ethnic Albanian residents who number about 72,000 and the 13,000-strong Serb community,
A former Serbian state secretary for Kosovo, Ivanovic was a key interlocutor with NATO, the United Nations and later the EU after the war and was seen as backing dialogue with Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians.
“Whoever is behind this attack … whether these are Albanian, Serb or any other criminals, they have to be punished, they have to be brought to justice,” Djuric said in Brussels, where he was heading the delegation due to hold talks with Kosovo Albanians on Tuesday.
However, after the assassination, the Belgrade delegation walked out of the talks, according to local media in Belgrade.
Under pressure from the international community and European Union auspices, Kosovo and Serbia have been trying to normalize ties some 20 years since the start of the bloody war that claimed 13,000 lives, mostly ethnic Albanians.
The 1998-99 war between Serbian security forces and Kosovo Albanian guerrillas was ended by a NATO air campaign.
Predominantly ethnic Albanian Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February 2008 but Belgrade has rejected the move and still considers the breakaway territory as its southern province.
About 120,000 of Kosovo’s 1.8 million inhabitants are ethnic Serbs.