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Kosovo has closed its main border crossing after a blockade in Serbia

Kosovo has closed its main border crossing after a blockade in Serbia

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  • The Merdare crossing is the most important for road freight transport
  • The Serbian president visits troops near the border
  • Kremlin backs Serbia, denies Russia stoking tensions

MERDARE, Kosovo, Dec 28 (Reuters) – Kosovo closed its largest border crossing with Serbia on Wednesday after protesters blocked it on the Serbian side to support their ethnic roots in Kosovo in refusing to recognize the country’s independence.

Tensions between Belgrade and Pristina have been rising since last month, when representatives of ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo walked out of state institutions, including the police and judiciary, over the Kosovo government’s decision to change Serbian-issued car license plates.

Kosovo Interior Minister Jellal Svekla said on Tuesday that Serbia, under the influence of Russia, is seeking to destabilize Kosovo. Serbia denies trying to destabilize its neighbor and says it simply wants to protect its minority there.

Kremlin on Wednesday he also rejected the Kosovo accusations but said he supported Belgrade. “Serbia is a sovereign state and it is absolutely wrong to seek Russia’s destructive influence here,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

For more than 20 years, Kosovo has been a source of tension between the West, which supported its independence, and Russia, which supports Serbia in its efforts to block the country’s membership in international organizations, including the United Nations.

Since December 10, Serbs in northern Kosovo have exchanged fire with police and erected more than 10 roadblocks in and around Mitrovica. Their actions followed the arrest of a former Serbian police officer accused of assaulting active police officers.

On Monday, Serbia put its troops on the highest alert. Late Tuesday, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who said Serbia continues to fight for peace and is seeking a compromise, inspected troops near the border.

CROSSING BLOCKED

Serbs in Serbia used a truck and tractors on Tuesday to set up the final roadblock near the Merdare border crossing on Kosovo’s eastern border, Belgrade media reported.

The government in Pristina asked the NATO peacekeeping force in the country, KFOR, to clear the barricades. But KFOR has no authority to operate on Serbian soil.

Kosovo’s foreign ministry announced on its Facebook page that the Merdare border crossing has been closed since midnight, saying: “If you have already entered Serbia, then you should use other border crossings… or go through North Macedonia.”

Merdare’s entry point is Kosovo’s most important for road freight, as well as complicating journeys for Kosovars working elsewhere in Europe to return home for holidays.

With two smaller Serbian border crossings in the north closed since December 10, only three entry points remain open between the two countries.

Pristina’s main airport was also closed on Tuesday morning due to a bomb threat, Kosovo police said in a statement. Police did not say if it was related to the recent tensions.

Serbian Defense Minister Miloš Vučević said Vučić was in talks with the so-called Quint Group of the United States, Italy, France, Germany and Britain to resolve the current tensions.

About 50,000 Serbs living in ethnically divided northern Kosovo refuse to recognize the government in Pristina or Kosovo’s status as a separate state from Serbia. They have the support of many Serbs in Serbia and its government.

Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 with Western backing after a 1998-99 war in which NATO intervened to protect ethnic Albanian citizens.

Report by Fatos Beauticians; Editing by Bradley Perrett and Alison Williams

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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