Protesting Serbs in northern Kosovo begin removing barricades | Conflict news

Protesting Serbs in northern Kosovo begin removing barricades | Conflict news

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A roadblock near the main border crossing between Kosovo and Serbia has been lifted, according to state broadcaster RTS and Kosovo police, announcing a move that paves the way for easing rising tensions in the volatile region.

Cars and trucks were lined up outside the border post on the Serbian side, where a blockade had been set up, the report said on Thursday, while Kosovo police confirmed that the border crossing had officially reopened.

It came hours after Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Serbian protesters had agreed to begin removing barricades who blocked roads for 19 days in Northern Kosovo.

Vucic, who met with Serbs from northern Kosovo in the Serbian town of Raška, said on Wednesday evening that the barricades would be removed but mistrust would remain.

“Those who play with [the] the very existence of Serbs in Kosovo should know that just as we did not allow it now, we will not allow it in the future,” he said.

Kosovo police officers patrol the bridge separating the southern Albanian and northern Serb-dominated parts of the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica [Visar Kryeziu/AP]

The European Union and the United States, which are mediating talks between Belgrade and Pristina to resolve the tense dispute, have ensured that none of the Serbs who put up barricades will be prosecuted, he added.

The EU and the US said in a joint statement on Wednesday that they welcomed “assurances from the leadership of Kosovo confirming that there are no lists of Kosovo Serb citizens to be arrested or prosecuted for peaceful protests/barricades”.

“At the same time, the rule of law must be respected and any form of violence is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” the statement said.

Serbian state media reported that Vucic had traveled to the Kosovo border for talks with Kosovo Serbs to try to persuade them to end their blockade.

“Just think again… what do we get if the barricades stay? I can tell you 500 things we can get if they are removed,” Vucic said during the meeting, state-controlled public broadcaster RTS reported.

Serbia had put theirs army on high alert on Monday as the situation in northern Kosovo appeared to be spiraling out of control, with Kosovo closing its largest border crossing to Serbian territory on Wednesday.

On Tuesday evening, dozens of demonstrators on the Serbian side of the border used trucks and tractors to stop traffic leading to Merdare, the biggest crossing point between the neighbors. The move forced Kosovo police to close the entry point on Wednesday.

“Such an illegal blockade has prevented the free movement and movement of people and goods, therefore we invite our citizens and compatriots to use other border points for movement,” the Kosovo police said in a statement.

Pristina asked NATO-led peacekeeping forces to clear the barricades erected on Kosovo territory, adding that its own forces were also able to remove the protesters.

The EU and US have expressed concern about the situation and called for an immediate de-escalation, saying they were working with Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti to seek a political solution to one of the worst conflicts in years between the Balkan neighbors.

“We call on all to exercise maximum restraint, take immediate action to unconditionally de-escalate the situation and refrain from provocation, threats or intimidation,” their joint statement said.

Earlier on Wednesday, a former Kosovo Serb police officer whose arrest on December 10 sparked violent protests by Kosovo’s Serb minority – including road blockades – was released from custody and placed under house arrest following a request from the prosecution, a spokesman for the Pristina Basic Court told Reuters.

Dejan Pantic was arrested for assaulting an active police officer. The court’s decision angered representatives of the Kosovo government, including Prime Minister Kurti and Justice Minister Albulena Hadjiu.

“I’m very curious to see who the prosecutor is that makes that request, who the pretrial judge is that approves it,” Curti said.

Italian soldiers from KFOR, part of the NATO peacekeeping force, park in front of the barricade near the village of Rudare, near the northern, Serb-dominated part of the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica
Italian soldiers from KFOR, part of the NATO peacekeeping force, park in front of the barricade near the village of Rudare [Visar Kryeziu/AP]

For more than 20 years, Kosovo has been a source of tension between the West, which supported its independence from Serbia in 2008, and Russia, which does not recognize Pristina and supports Serbia in its efforts to block Kosovo’s membership in global organizations, including the United Nations.

However, the Kremlin denied The statements of the interior minister of Kosovo this week that Russia is influencing Serbia’s handling of ethnic tensions to destabilize Kosovo, saying Serbia is protecting the rights of ethnic Serbs.

About 50,000 Serbs living in northern Kosovo, which they say is still part of Serbia, to oppose any actions they consider anti-Serbian and refuse to recognize the government in Pristina or the status of Kosovo as a separate state.

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 against Serbian forces to protect ethnic Albanian citizens.

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