Prominent Kosovo Serb politician assassinated

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA: Leading 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 normalising ties after a hiatus of more than a year.

The Serbian government official in charge of Kosovo, Marko Djuric, described the murder as a "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 flashpoint town of Mitrovica at about 8.15am, according to police.

"I am informed that he was shot dead on the spot and efforts to revive him at Mitrovica hospital were unsuccessful," his lawyer Nebojsa Vlajic told AFP.

He said Ivanovic, a moderate politician who had been a critic of Belgrade's policies in Kosovo, was hit by five bullets.

Police said they found a burnt-out car that was presumably used in the attack, local media reported.

Public prosecutor Shyqri Syla told AFP that investigators were at the scene, but that it was not yet known who was behind the attack.

Ethnically divided town

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 court's decision.

The Social Democratic Party politician was considered a moderate in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica. Last year he was elected a deputy on the municipal council of northern Mitrovica.

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 European Union after the war and was seen as backing dialogue with Kosovo's ethnic Albanians.

Ivanovic, who graduated in both mechanics and economics, was a rare Kosovo Serb politician in that he spoke Albanian and had publicly spoken out against Belgrade's policies in Kosovo.

'Must be brought to justice'

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic swiftly called an emergency meeting of the Council for national security after the shooting, national broadcaster RTS reported.

"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 normalise ties for 20 years since the start of a 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. — AFP