Kosovo’s largest border crossing with Serbia was closed on Wednesday as months of tensions flared again, prompting Washington and Brussels to call for an immediate easing of tensions.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Belgrade refused to recognize it and encouraged Kosovo’s 120,000 ethnic Serbs to challenge Pristina’s authority, especially in the north where ethnic Serbs form the majority.
The latest trouble erupted on December 10, when Serbs erected barricades to protest the arrest of a former policeman suspected of involvement in attacks against ethnic Albanian police officers, effectively blocking traffic at two border crossings .
After checkpoints were erected, Kosovo police and international peacekeepers were attacked in several shootouts, while the Serbian armed forces were placed on alert this week.
But a Pristina court on Wednesday ordered former police officer, Dejan Pantic, to be released from jail and placed under house arrest, a spokeswoman said.
The move may suggest a calming of the situation as ethnic Serbs cited his arrest as the main reason for erecting the barricades.
On Tuesday, dozens of protesters on the Serbian side of the border used trucks and tractors to block traffic leading to Merdare, the neighbors’ largest intersection, a move that 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 urge our citizens and compatriots to use other border points for movement,” read a statement by the Kosovo Police.
Pristina has also called on NATO-led peacekeepers to remove the barricades erected on Kosovo soil.
United States, I urge de-escalation
Meanwhile, the European Union and the United States have expressed concern about the situation and have called for its immediate easing.
“We call on everyone to exercise maximum restraint, to take immediate action to unconditionally de-escalate the situation, and to refrain from provocation, threats or intimidation,” they said in a joint statement.
The EU and the US said they were working with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti to seek a political solution to one of the worst flare-ups in recent years in northern Kosovo.
On Wednesday, Serbian Defense Minister Milos Vucevic said Belgrade was “ready for a deal” but did not elaborate.
Vucevic described the checkpoints as a “democratic and peaceful” means of protest and added that Serbia has “an open line of communication” with Western diplomats to resolve the issue.
“We are all concerned about the situation and where all this is going…Serbia is ready for a deal,” Vucevic told state-controlled public broadcaster RTS.
Russia supports ally Serbia
North Kosovo has been on edge since November, when hundreds of ethnic Serb workers from Kosovo’s police and judicial branch, including judges and prosecutors, quit their jobs.
They were protesting the controversial decision to ban Serbs living in Kosovo from using Belgrade-issued license plates, a policy that was eventually abolished by Pristina.
The mass strikes have created a security vacuum in Kosovo, which Pristina has been trying to fill by deploying ethnic Albanian police officers in the region.
Russia expressed support for its ally Serbia on Wednesday and said it was following developments “very closely”, while Germany warned of an increased military presence near the Kosovo border.
“We support Belgrade in all actions that are taken,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday.
He added however that “Serbia is a sovereign country and it is fundamentally wrong to look here for some kind of destructive influence of Russia”.
According to Peskov, “Serbia is defending the rights of Serbs living nearby in difficult conditions. Naturally, they react harshly when these rights are violated.”
The EU and several international ambassadors this week condemned four recent attacks on journalists who were covering the flare-up.
Kosovo’s 1.8 million inhabitants are predominantly ethnic Albanians.