The European Union and the United States have expressed concern about the tense situation in the north of Kosovo, where authorities on December 28 closed down the main border crossing with Serbia at Merdare after protesters set up a roadblock on the Serbian side.
Merdare, on Kosovo’s eastern border, was blocked by a truck and tractors, media reported, amid escalating tensions between ethnic Serbs and the authorities in Pristina.
“We call on everyone to exercise maximum restraint, to take immediate action to unconditionally de-escalate the situation, and to refrain from provocations, threats, or intimidation,” the joint EU and U.S. statement said.
The statement said the EU and the U.S. were working with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti “to find a political solution in order to defuse the tensions and agree on the way forward in the interest of stability, safety, and well-being of all local communities.”
Serbian Defense Minister Milos Vucevic said on December 28 that Belgrade was “ready for a deal” but did not elaborate.
Vucevic described the roadblocks that have been set up as a “democratic and peaceful” means of protest in comments to state-controlled public broadcaster RTS, adding that Serbia had “an open line of communication” with Western diplomats on resolving the issue.
“We are all worried about the situation and where all this is going…. Serbia is ready for a deal,” Vucevic said.
Northern Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs are a majority, has been on edge since November, when hundreds of ethnic Serb policemen, judges, and prosecutors walked off the job in protest at a decision by Pristina to ban the Belgrade-issued license plates inside Kosovo.
The policy was scrapped by Pristina but the mass walkouts created a security vacuum in Kosovo.
On December 28, Kosovar authorities sought to defuse tensions, announcing the release of ethnic Serb ex-police officer Dejan Pantic, whose arrest on December 10 prompted hundreds of outraged ethnic Serbs to set up roadblocks in northern Kosovo and paralyzed traffic through two border crossings.
Pantic, who had been arrested on suspicion of being involved in an attack on Central Election Commission officials, was to be placed under house arrest, his lawyer told RFE/RL.
The EU-U.S. joint statement welcomed assurances from Kosovo that no lists of Kosovo Serb citizens to be arrested or prosecuted for holding peaceful protests or setting up barricades exist.
“At the same time, rule of law must be respected, and any form of violence is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” the statement said.
It added that the United States will support the EU’s work through its Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) and said the EU and the United States “expect Kosovo and Serbia to return to fostering an environment conducive to reconciliation, regional stability, and cooperation for the benefit of their citizens.”
The statement also said all obligations under the Brussels Agreement — the EU-facilitated dialogue to normalize Kosovo-Serbia relations — “must be fully implemented without delay.”
The Merdare border crossing is Kosovo’s most important for road freight, and its closure also creates additional difficulties for Kosovars working abroad who are returning home for the holidays.
On December 26, two more border crossings were blocked by ethnic Serbs on the Kosovar side amid a rise in reported shootings, the latest of which was occurred late on December 25, according to KFOR.
Only three entry points between the two countries remain open.
KFOR said in a statement on December 28 that it “remains extremely vigilant and has the capability and personnel to provide a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all communities under our UN mandate.”
KFOR also urged the security forces of both sides to continue abiding by existing agreements on troop movements.
On December 27, Kosovar Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla said Serbia, under the influence of Russia, was aiming to destabilize Kosovo, an accusation rejected by Belgrade, which says it just wants to protect its minority in Kosovo.
The Kremlin on December 28 also denied Kosovo’s accusations but said it supported Belgrade.
“Serbia is a sovereign country and it is absolutely wrong to look for Russia’s destructive influence here,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Kosovo, which has an overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian majority, broke away from Serbia after a war in 1998-99.
It declared independence in 2008, but Belgrade has never recognized it and encourages Kosovo’s 120,000 ethnic Serbs to defy the central Kosovar government’s authority.
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