Serbs in northern Kosovo will begin removing barricades from Thursday

Serbs in northern Kosovo will begin removing barricades from Thursday

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  • A third major border crossing was closed on Wednesday
  • Serbs in northern Kosovo are resisting what they see as anti-Serbian actions
  • Kosovo declared independence with Western support in 2008

MITROVICA, Kosovo, Dec 28 (Reuters) – Kosovo Serbs who have blocked roads in northern Kosovo for 19 days agreed to begin removing barricades from Thursday morning, heeding calls from the United States and the European Union to ease tensions.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who met with Serbs from northern Kosovo in the Serbian town of Raška, said the process of removing the barricades would begin Thursday morning.

“It’s a long process and it will take some time,” Vucic said.

He also added that the United States and the European Union, which are mediating talks between Belgrade and Pristina to resolve outstanding bilateral issues, have ensured that none of the Serbs who erected the barricades will be prosecuted.

The removal of the barricades is expected to ease tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.

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 Kosovo’s membership in global organizations, including the United Nations.

The United States, NATO and the European Union called for maximum restraint in northern Kosovo after authorities closed a third border crossing on Wednesday and tensions with local Serbs escalated over its 2008 independence.

NATO’s mission in Kosovo, KFOR, has said it supports dialogue between all sides to reduce tensions, which have included Serbian blockades of major arteries by trucks and other heavy vehicles and violent clashes with police.

Serbia put its army on high alert on Monday.

The Kremlin, for its part, refused Kosovo’s interior minister’s claims that Russia is influencing Serbia to destabilize Kosovo, saying that Serbia is protecting the rights of ethnic Serbs.

A former Kosovo Serb police officer whose arrest sparked violent protests from Kosovo’s Serb minority has been released from custody and placed under house arrest following a request by prosecutors, a spokesman for Pristina’s Basic Court told Reuters.

Dejan Pantic was arrested on December 10 for assaulting an active police officer. Since then, Serbs in northern Kosovo have exchanged fire with police and erected more than 10 roadblocks demanding his release.

The court’s decision angered representatives of the Kosovo government, including Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Justice Minister Albulena Hadjiu.

“I don’t know how to understand it and how it is possible for someone who is accused of such a serious crime related to terrorism to go under house arrest,” Hajiu said.

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

Pantic was one of many Serbs who left the police and other institutions after Pristina said it would implement a law requiring Serbs to remove Serbian-issued car license plates dating back to the 1998-99 guerrilla uprising that led to the independence of Kosovo.

Serbs in northern Kosovo, which they believe is still part of Serbia, resist any actions they see as anti-Serbian.

Two border crossings between Serbia and Kosovo were closed on December 10, and the third, the largest for road freight, Merdare, was closed to traffic on Wednesday, preventing Kosovars working elsewhere in Europe from traveling home for the holidays.

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

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

Report by Fatos Beauticians; Editing by Ivana Sekularak, Andrew Havens, Nick McPhee, Barbara Lewis and Himani Sarkar

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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