The arrest of the three policemen unleashed a war of words between the Kosovo government and Serbia

Pristina (AFP) - Belgrade on Monday freed three Kosovo police officers who had been taken into custody by Serbian security forces earlier this month, following a court order to release the trio.

The move followed weeks of soaring tensions between the two sides, after rioting in northern Kosovo saw more than 30 NATO peacekeepers injured in late May.

“We confirm that the 3 kidnapped police officers have been released. Even though we are joyous that they get to return to their families, this abduction consists of a serious human rights violation & must be reprimanded,” Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti wrote on social media.

Kurti’s announcement came as a Serbian court said the three had been indicted but their detention had also been “terminated”.

“The higher tribunal… has confirmed the indictment against the aforementioned and brought a ruling that the detention of the indictees be terminated,” read a statement by the higher court in Serbia’s Kraljevo, where the case was heard.

The three officers entered into Kosovo at the Merdare border crossing on Monday afternoon, according to an AFP journalist, where they were greeted and shook hands with officials.

The arrest of the three policemen unleashed a war of words between the Kosovo government and Serbia, with Pristina saying the three men had been kidnapped. Belgrade, however, accused the three of crossing into its territory.

Tensions have skyrocketed after Pristina decided last month to install ethnic Albanian mayors in Serb-majority areas 

Kurti’s government has sought to crack down on what it says is rampant smuggling across its northern frontier, accusing Serbia of using organised crime and black market trade to control Serb-majority areas of north Kosovo.

The prime minister said the “kidnapping” of its police was likely “revenge” for the arrest of an alleged Serb paramilitary leader in Kosovo this month, whom Kurti claimed was a major figure linked to the smuggling gangs.

- High tensions -

Tensions have been skyrocketing between the arch rivals following Pristina’s decision last month to install ethnic Albanian mayors in four Serb-majority municipalities.

France, Germany and the United States have urged both Pristina and Belgrade to dial down the tensions, while the US openly slammed the Kosovo government’s decision to install the mayors.

The European Union held crisis talks mediated by foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last week, hoping to ease tensions.

However the meeting did not appear to score any breakthroughs, with the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia not meeting face to face.

“After four hours meeting, I think the two leaders understand the severity of the situation,” Borrell said. “But obviously, they are in different situations, different approaches, different interpretations.”

The dispute was the latest in a long list of incidents to rock the area since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 – nearly a decade after NATO forces helped push Serbian forces out of the former province during a bloody war that killed around 13,000 people, most ethnic Albanians.

Belgrade, along with its key allies China and Russia, has refused to recognise Kosovo’s independence, effectively preventing it from having a seat at the United Nations.

Kosovo is overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Albanians, but in the northern stretches of the territory near the border with Serbia, ethnic Serbs remain the majority in several municipalities.