Kosovo Albanians block roads during Serbia President visit

MITROVICA, Kosovo (AP) – Kosovo Albanians yesterday blocked roads and burned tyres on a planned route by Serbia’s President in the former Serbian province, further fuelling tensions between the two Balkan foes.

During his two-day trip, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic planned to visit a Serb-populated village in central Kosovo yesterday, but roads leading to the region were blocked by wooden logs, trucks and heavy machinery, preventing him from reaching his destination.

Vucic and his entourage were stopped by Kosovo police on the road to the Drenica region and were told they couldn’t continue for security reasons. Drenica was in the scene of the first bloody crackdown by Serb troops against ethnic Albanian separatists in 1998.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said that opposition by Kosovo’s citizens to the visit by Vucic is understandable, but he urged restraint for the sake of peace and reconciliation after the 1998-99 war.

Thaci said on his Facebook page that the blockade “shows that the pain and war injuries are still fresh”. Thaci added that as Kosovo and Serbia seek to mend ties, “the protests and road-blocking don’t help us”.

In this photograph made available by the Serbian Presidency, a Kosovo police officer speaks to Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic (L) to say he cannot continue his trip to the village of Banje due to roadblocks, in Zubin Potok, Kosovo yesterday. – AP

“We should know to raise beyond ourselves, beyond the injuries and manifold pain,” said Thaci, who was a rebel commander during the war. “We should do this on behalf of peace and reconciliation.”

Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj wrote on Facebook that he has “cancelled the permission issued by the Foreign Affairs Ministry for the Serbian President’s visit to the Drenica zone”.

“Citizens’ security is above all,” he added.Vucic said gunfire could be heard from the roadblocks.

“I don’t like guns, but we won’t allow anyone to harass Serbs in Kosovo,” Vucic said. He did not indicate what kind of response he had in mind, but said that he won’t call for the arming of Kosovo Serbs in retaliation.

Vucic was a fiery ultranationalist during the war. Kosovo was a Serbian province when a crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in 1998-99 led to the deaths of more than 10,000 people.

The conflict ended with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervention, which forced Serbia to pull out of the province. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, a move that Serbia doesn’t recognise.

In his long-anticipated keynote speech in the divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica, the Serbian President said his country no longer wants to wage wars in Kosovo, but is seeking to build trust and friendship with majority Albanians.

“I am talking about reality. I do not sing battle songs, I don’t want to incite war, I won’t promise arms and ammunition,” Vucic said, addressing thousands of Kosovo Serbs. “I wish to believe that we can now have an era of rational, and why not in 50 years, friendly relations with the Albanians.”

But Vucic also issued a veiled threat, saying that Serbia will defend minority Serbs in its former province if they come under attack. Serbs represent about 10 per cent of Kosovo’s two million people.

“We are not playing heroes, but I ask everyone on the other side to take my words seriously and accept them,” he said. “I will not think twice to protect our people if our people are attacked in any part of Kosovo.” In the lengthy address, Vucic reiterated that an agreement to resolve the long-standing dispute with Kosovo was still far away, but promised to work to achieve it.

Despite expectations, Vucic failed to outline a concrete proposal for a future deal with Kosovo. Serbia and Kosovo must mend ties to advance toward European Union (EU) membership. The two sides have been engaged in EU-mediated negotiations.

Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic blamed the road blockades on former Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers who fought Serb troops in Kosovo during the war.

Stefanovic said that security in Kosovo has deteriorated and that the gunshots are “a signal that Serbs are not welcome” in Kosovo.