Serbs arrested in Kosovo on Christmas released

BELGRADE, PRIŠTINA -- All nine Serbs arrested by the Kosovo police, KPS, on Orthodox Christmas in the enclave of Gračanica have been released.

This has been confirmed by Kosovska Mitrovica Mayor and Deputy Director of the Government Office for Kosovo Krstimir Pantić.

Pantić told B92 late on Tuesday that the Serbs "will be free while conducting their defense", and explained the charges against them:

"A misdemeanor judge decided today, after questioning them for several hours, to release all the arrested Serbs. Initially the prosecutor believed that their were an organized criminal group, but later that accusation was changed to 'disturbing the public order and disobeying police orders'. These are minor misdemeanors and I hope the judge will not pursue these accusations either, freeing them of any responsibility."

Pantić also commented on the nature of the incident:

"This is proof that the arrests were politically motivated, designed to discourage Serbs, because they were arrested on the greatest, most joyous Serb holiday, when they were visiting a monastery."

The Serbs were arrested by the Kosovo police, KPS, in Gračanica on Monday, and later transferred to Priština for questioning.

Earlier on Tuesday, lawyer Dejan Vasić announced that their would be released and said the Kosovo prosecution found no reason to criminally prosecute the group, adding that the case "will be taken over by a judge in charge of misdemeanor offenses".

Vasić, who was hired by the Government Office for Kosovo and Metohija, added that those arrested could also be ordered to pay fines.

The lawyer also said that they would be released from custody "after the 48-hour detention period expires".

Earlier in the day, Kosovo Office Director Aleksandar Vulin criticized the arrests as "provocation, lawlessness, and crude violence" perpetrated by the Kosovo Albanian authorities.

Also earlier on Monday, the Serbian government condemned the violence committed in Gračanica when the Kosovo police arrested nine young Serbs who attended the Christmas Liturgy there, and called on the representatives of international missions in Kosovo and Metohija to release the youths.

According to its media office, the government strongly condemned the violence in Gračanica and called on the international missions in Kosovo to prevent such provocations coming from the extremists in the Kosovo interim government who aim to intimidate Serbs and prevent a dialogue and peaceful resolution of the problems in the province.

The Serbian government warned the international community that the government in Kosovo and Metohija are preventing the celebration of Christian holidays and requests from KFOR, UNMIK and EULEX to protect citizens in the southern province in keeping with their mandate and ensure respect for civil and religious freedoms, the release states.

The group of young Serbs was placed in a 48-hour detention after they were arrested following the Christmas Liturgy in the Gračanica Monastery, and the Kosovo police, KPS, said that the arrested individuals were suspicious "because they constantly followed the police security" protecting Director of the Government Office for Kosovo Aleksandar Vulin.