Serbs in northern Kosovo begin removing barriers from Thursday

  • A third major border crossing was closed on Wednesday
  • Serbs in northern Kosovo are resisting moves they see as anti-Serb
  • Kosovo declared independence with the support of the West in 2008

Mitrovica, Kosovo, Dec 28 (Reuters) – Kosovo Serbs, who have been blocking roads in northern Kosovo for 19 days, agreed to start removing roadblocks from Thursday morning, in response to calls from the United States and European Union to defuse tensions.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who met Serbs from northern Kosovo in the Serbian town of Raska, said the process of removing the barriers would begin on Thursday morning.

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

He added that the United States and the European Union, who 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 barriers is expected to defuse 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 world organizations including the United Nations.

The United States, NATO and the European Union have urged maximum restraint in northern Kosovo, where authorities closed a third border crossing on Wednesday and tensions rose with local Serbs over its independence in 2008.

NATO’s mission in Kosovo, KFOR, said it supported dialogue between all parties to defuse tensions, including Serb roadblocks on main roads with trucks and other heavy vehicles and violent clashes with police.

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Serbia put its army on high alert on Monday.

For its part, the Kremlin denied the allegations of the Kosovo Interior Minister that Russia is exerting its influence on Serbia to destabilize Kosovo, saying that Serbia defends the rights of Serbs.

A former Kosovo Serb police officer whose arrest sparked violent protests by Kosovo’s Serb minority has been released and placed under house arrest at the request of the prosecutor’s office, a spokesperson for the Pristina First Instance Court told Reuters.

Diane Pantek was arrested on December 10 for assaulting a police officer on duty. Since then, Serbs in northern Kosovo have exchanged gunfire with police and set up more than 10 roadblocks, demanding his release.

The court’s decision angered Kosovo government officials, including Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Minister of Justice Albolina Hakshaw.

“I don’t know how to understand that and how someone accused of such a serious terrorism-related crime can go to house arrest,” Hackshaw said.

“I’m curious as to who is the prosecutor who made this request, and who is the preliminary trial judge who agrees with it,” Curti said.

Pantik was one of many Serbs who left the police and other institutions after Pristina said it would implement a law requiring Serbs to cancel license plates for cars issued from Serbia that dated before the 1998-1999 guerrilla uprising that led to Kosovo’s independence.

Serbs in northern Kosovo, who believe they are still part of Serbia, are resisting any moves they see as anti-Serb.

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Two border crossings between Serbia and Kosovo were closed on December 10, and a third, the largest for road freight, Merdere, was closed to traffic on Wednesday, disrupting flights for Kosovars working elsewhere in Europe from returning home for 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, following the 1998-1999 war in which NATO intervened to protect Albanian citizens.

Reporting by Fatos Paetsi; Editing by Ivana Sekularak, Andrew Heavens, Nick McPhee, Barbara Lewis, and Himani Sarkar

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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