- A third major border crossing was closed on Wednesday
- Serbs in northern Kosovo regard the actions as anti-Serb
- Kosovo declared independence in 2008 with the support of the West
Mitrovica, Kosovo, Dec. 28 (Reuters) – Kosovo Serbs who have blocked roads in northern Kosovo for 19 days agreed to begin removing barricades on Thursday morning, bowing to 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 Raska, said the process of removing the blockade would begin 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, which are mediating talks between Belgrade and Pristina to resolve outstanding bilateral issues, have guaranteed that any Serbs erecting barricades will not be prosecuted.
The lifting of the blockade 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 bodies including the United Nations.
The United States, NATO and the European Union have insisted on maximum control over Kosovo’s north, as authorities closed a third border crossing on Wednesday and heightened tensions with local Serbs over 2008 independence.
NATO’s mission in Kosovo, KFOR, said it supports dialogue between all sides to ease tensions, which include Serbian roadblocks with trucks and other heavy vehicles and violent clashes with police.
Serbia put its army on the highest alert on Monday.
The Kremlin has denied claims by Kosovo’s interior minister that Russia is influencing Serbia to destabilize Kosovo, saying Serbia protects the rights of ethnic Serbs.
A former Kosovo Serb policeman who sparked violent protests by Kosovo’s Serb minority has been released from custody and placed under house arrest at the request of the prosecutor’s office, a spokesman for the Pristina Basic Court told Reuters.
Dijon Pantic was arrested on December 10 for assaulting a police officer on duty. Since then, Serbs in northern Kosovo have exchanged fire with police and set up more than 10 roadblocks, demanding his release.
The court ruling angered Kosovo government officials, including Prime Minister Albin Kurdi and Justice Minister Albulena Hakhshiu.
“I don’t know how to understand it, how it’s possible for someone accused of a serious crime related to terrorism to go to house arrest,” Hakshiu said.
“I’m very interested to see who’s the lawyer who makes this request and who’s the pretrial judge who approves it,” Kurdi said.
Pantic was one of many Serbs who left the police and other agencies after Pristina ordered Serbs to remove their Serbian-issued car license plates that predate the 1998-99 guerrilla uprising that led to Kosovo’s independence.
Serbs in northern Kosovo, who they believe are part of Serbia, oppose any move they see as anti-Serb.
Two border crossings between Serbia and Kosovo were closed on December 10, and a third road, the largest for freight traffic, was closed to traffic in Merdere on Wednesday, disrupting trips by Kosovars working elsewhere in Europe to return home for the holidays.
About 50,000 Serbs living in northern Kosovo refuse to recognize the government in Pristina or Kosovo as a separate state. They have the support of many Serbs in Serbia and its government.
Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence with the support of the West following the 1998-99 war, when NATO intervened to protect Albanian civilians.
A report by Fatos BYTC; Editing: Ivana Segularak, Andrew Heavens, Nick MacPhee, Barbara Lewis and Himani Sarkar
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