Ethnic Serbs blockade NATO troops in north Kosovo

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Ethnic Serbs from Kosovo’s north said they had blockaded NATO troops who took control of border posts with Serbia this week to halt violence provoked by a customs dispute with Belgrade.

NATO said it was negotiating with the ethnic Serbs to get the roadblocks removed as it tries to ease tensions over the row
between Kosovo, which is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, and Serbia which refuses to recognise independence of its former province, Reuters reports.

Trouble flared when Kosovo sent ethnic Albanian special police units on Monday to the border posts, which had been staffed mostly by ethnic Serbs, to enforce a ban on imports from Serbia. Pristina imposed the ban to retaliate against Belgrade’s block on Kosovan exports in a dispute over customs regulations.

NATO then sent peacekeepers to quell three days of violence in the Serb-populated north in which one ethnic Albanian policeman was shot dead and hard-line Serbian nationalists set fire to one of the northern border crossings.

An ethnic Serb leader accused NATO on Friday of trying to help Pristina in the dispute. “We will not allow NATO to bring Kosovo (Albanian) police and customs to the border, but we will protect ourselves in a peaceful manner,” said Krstimir Pantic, mayor of Kosovo’s Serb-dominated northern Mitrovica.

A Reuters eyewitness saw Serb civilians blocking roads throughout northern Kosovo late on Thursday with trucks, trailers, logs and car tyres.
“Men, women, children, elderly — we will all sit down and if NATO wants to pass through, they will have to roll over us,” said Filip, an ethnic Serb who maintained a roadblock near the village of Rudare.

A NATO spokesman in Pristina said the alliance wanted a non-violent solution but would act if necessary. “We are trying to remove these roadblocks in a peaceful manner and today we will have more talks (with Serb negotiators). If no solution is found we will take measures to ensure freedom of movement,” he said.

Serbia lost control of Kosovo in 1999, when NATO waged a 78-day bombing campaign to end Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic’s crackdown on ethnic Albanian rebels and ethnic cleansing.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008 in a move not recognised by Serbia, and the 60,000 Serbs who live in northern Kosovo still consider Belgrade as their capital. Another 40,000 Serbs live in enclaves in the rest of Kosovo.

The border was quiet on Friday, a day after the commander of NATO’s mission in Kosovo warned that peacekeepers at the border crossings would use live ammunition to defend themselves.

The European Union also raised pressure on Kosovo and Serbia to avoid violence and make progress on talks aimed at mending basic ties such as traffic, trade and movement of people.

Serbs cherish Kosovo as the historic heartland of their Orthodox Christianity and most are bitterly opposed to its independence.

In Serbia, law enforcement agencies have stepped up efforts to discover whether ultra-nationalists outside Kosovo masterminded Wednesday’s attack on the border crossing.
“We know there were individuals who travelled there,” said a police official who asked not to be named. “The attack was most likely organised by criminal clans from northern Kosovo and their ultranationalists friends.”
“We are checking an ultranationalist organisation which on its Facebook page said it sent about two dozen men to Kosovo.”