Serbs in Kosovo block roads, clash with police as ethnic tensions worsen

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By Fatos Bytyci

MITROVICA, Kosovo Dec 11 (Reuters) – Serb protesters in northern Kosovo blocked main roads for a second day on Sunday following a nightime exchange of fire with police after the arrest of a former Serb policeman, amid a surge in tensions between the Serb minority and the authorities.

In recent weeks Serbs in northern Kosovo, a hotbed of Serb nationalism, have met attempts by Pristina which they see as anti-Serb with violent resistance.

EULEX, the European Union mission tasked with patrolling the north of Kosovo, said a stun grenade was thrown on one of its armoured vehicles in the area on Saturday evening, but there were no injuries.

Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, warned the bloc will not tolerate violence against members of its mission.

“#EU will not tolerate attacks on @EULEXKosovo or use of violent, criminal acts in the north. Barricades must be removed immediately by groups of Kosovo Serbs. Calm must be restored,” he wrote on Twitter.

The latest protests were triggered by the arrest of a former police officer on Saturday. He was part of an exodus of Serbs from the force last month, after Pristina said it would enforce a law requiring Serbs to scrap old license plates dating to before the 1998-99 guerrilla uprising that led to independence.

For a second day on Sunday, trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles blocked several main roads in northern Kosovo that lead to two border crossings with Serbia. Both crossings were closed for traffic.

Late on Saturday Kosovo police said they came under fire in different locations close to a lake bordering Serbia. The force said it had to return fire in self-defence and there was no immediate reports of injuries.

“The barricades from masked criminals in the north must be removed immediately,” Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said in a statement adding that his government was in contact with NATO’s peacekeeping mission that has more than 3,000 troops on the ground.

Police in Pristina said former policeman Dejan Pantic was arrested for allegedly attacking state offices, smashing the windows of the election commission offices, and police officers and election officials on Tuesday.

After Saturday’s incidents, Goran Rakic, the head of the Serbian List party, which is supported by Belgrade, called on Serbs in northern Kosovo to show restraint and cooperate with NATO peacekeepers and EULEX.

“We all need peace …, to give space to negotiators who would come to a solution … through dialogue, and not through unilateral moves,” Rakic said in a statement.

On his Instagram page, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic said “there will be no surrender,” in Kosovo, but added Belgrade “will continue the fight with all legal means, for peace.”

Serb mayors in northern Kosovo municipalities, along with local judges and some 600 police officers, resigned last month in protest over a government decision to replace Belgrade-issued car licence plates with ones issued by Pristina.

On Saturday Vucic said Belgrade would ask NATO’s KFOR peacekeeper mission to let Serbia deploy troops and police in Kosovo, although he acknowledged there was no chance of permission being granted.

“We do not seek conflict, but dialogue and peace. But let me be clear: the Republic of Kosovo will defend itself – forcefully and decisively,” Kurti said in response to Vucic’s comments.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 with the backing of the West, following a 1998-1999 war in which NATO intervened to protect Albanian-majority Kosovo.

Photo: EULEX

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