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Ivanovic, Moderate Kosovo Serb Leader, Is Killed

RIJEKA, Croatia — A prominent Serb politician in Kosovo, a rare voice for coexistence of ethnic Albanians and Serbs, was shot and killed Tuesday, heightening tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, which has refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence.

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RIJEKA, Croatia — A prominent Serb politician in Kosovo, a rare voice for coexistence of ethnic Albanians and Serbs, was shot and killed Tuesday, heightening tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, which has refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Oliver Ivanovic, 64, the leader of the Citizens’ Initiative Party, was shot outside the party’s offices in Mitrovica, a northern city that is divided along ethnic lines. Though seen as a moderate in Serb politics in Kosovo, Ivanovic, whose party was not backed by the government in Belgrade, also faced war crimes charges, which he and his allies described as politically motivated.

In a televised news conference, Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, insisted that his government had no role in what he called “a terrorist act,” and suggested that the killing was part of a campaign by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority to take control of the country’s predominantly Serb north.

He called a meeting of his security council, and warned the government of Kosovo not to use the assassination “as a pretext to send their boots on the ground in the north.”

But an opposition leader in Serbia, Sasa Jankovic, noted Tuesday that Vucic’s government, which he described as repressive, had been harshly critical of Ivanovic in the past. “Whoever did this — and we do not know who it is — works against the interests of the Serbs and of Serbia and the Albanian people and everyone else,” he said.

The Kosovo government condemned the killing, which it said “challenges the rule of law and any attempt to establish order throughout the entire territory of Kosovo.”

In a statement, Hashim Thaci, president of Kosovo, said, “I call on the law enforcement authorities to expose the circumstances of his assassination as soon as possible and the perpetrators of the crime come to justice.”

In Brussels, after the assassination, a Serb delegation walked out of talks Tuesday on normalizing relations between Kosovo and Serbia. The European Union has served as a mediator as both Serbia and Kosovo seek to join the 28-nation bloc. But recognizing Kosovo’s independence is a condition for Serbia’s membership in the bloc. Serbia considers Kosovo the cradle of the Serbian nation and of its Christian Orthodox faith and refuses to recognize its former province as an independent state, a stance backed by Russia.

Serbia had ruled the predominantly ethnic Albanian province since the late 1980s, when its former strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, revoked Kosovo’s autonomy. Serb forces were driven out in 1999, after a U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign. Kosovo declared independence in February 2008, with the overwhelming backing of Western countries like the United States and most members of the European Union.

However, the ethnic Albanian-dominated government in the capital, Pristina, has failed to bring under its control the predominantly Serb parts of the country north of the Ibar River, including Mitrovica. The city is divided by the Ibar, with Albanians in the southern part and Serbs in the north, where Ivanovic was killed. When the war ended, NATO troops under French command allowed the city to be partitioned at the river, with the Serbs controlling the northern sector and maintaining close ties to Belgrade.

Ivanovic had no shortage of enemies, and someone set fire to his car outside his house in July 2017, after which some of his allies urged him to leave the country. In addition to being at the center of political tensions, he was an outspoken critic of Kosovo’s drug gangs and authorities who he said allowed traffickers to operate with impunity.

His is one of several ethnic Serb parties in Kosovo, but unlike its major rivals, it is less subservient to Belgrade, and willing to recognize and work with the ethnic Albanian authorities. Under a previous administration in Belgrade, he served as chief of Serbia’s Ministry for Kosovo.

“He had a small party but a huge reputation,” said Dusan Reljic, a southeast Europe specialist at German Institute for International Affairs and Security, who knew Ivanovic. “If you were looking for someone who could build bridges, it would be him, which is why neither the government in Pristina nor the government in Belgrade liked him.”

“Oliver knew he wasn’t safe,” Reljic added.

A doctor who treated Ivanovic said he had been shot five times in the upper body. Police responded by blockading the Serb-majority northern part of the city as they searched for the gunman.

In 2014, a special EU court set up to deal with Kosovo charged Ivanovic with involvement in the expulsion and killing of Albanian civilians. He was convicted in 2016 on one count, but an appeals court overturned that verdict last year and ordered a new trial.

International representatives in Kosovo condemned the killing Tuesday, and called for a full investigation. Tensions have escalated in Kosovo as the nation of 1.8 million prepares to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its statehood. Last week, the State Department warned Americans to exercise caution if traveling to the country, citing an increased threat of terrorism, particularly in Serb-dominated enclaves, including northern Mitrovica.

Ivanovic, who was married and had three children, was one of the main leaders of the Serbs in northern Mitrovica but later came to support better relations with ethnic Albanians, including the government in Pristina.

Marko Duric, director of Serbia’s Ministry for Kosovo, said that whoever killed Ivanovic had aimed to destabilize the region. “The goal is to provoke chaos and to push Serbs in Kosovo and Serbia into the hell of fighting,” he told reporters in Brussels.

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