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Tensions high in Kosovo as Serbs block road

PRISTINA, KOSOVO (AP) – Tensions were high in northern Kosovo yesterday, with Serbs blocking roads as shots and explosions rang out overnight, Kosovo police and media reported. No injuries were reported.

The blocking of the roads with heavy vehicles and trucks happened a day after the Serbian president said he would ask the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo to permit the deployment of 1,000 Serb troops in the Serb-populated north of Kosovo, claiming they are being harassed there.

The road blocks, which Serbs say were erected to protest recent arrest of a former Kosovo Serb police officer, came despite the postponement of the December 18 municipal election the Kosovo Serbs were opposed to.

Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic said yesterdaythat his message to the Serbs in Kosovo is that “there is no surrender and there will be no surrender”. He claimed the Serbs had been “forced” to erect the road barricades to protect themselves from Kosovo security forces.

The European Union rule of law mission, known as EULEX, reported that “a stun grenade was thrown at an EULEX reconnaissance patrol last night”, causing no injury or material damage.

EULEX, which has some 134 Polish, Italian and Lithuanian police officers deployed in the north, called on “those responsible to refrain from more provocative actions” and said it urged the Kosovo institutions “to bring the perpetrators to justice”.

Local Serbs walk by a barricade near the village of Rudare. PHOTO: AP

Unidentified masked men were seen on the Serb barricades that were blocking main roads leading to the border with Serbia, as Kosovo authorities closed two border crossings to all traffic and pedestrians.

On Sunday morning, the situation was calm on the barricades, but with an increased presence of Kosovar Albanian police in the areas with a mixed population in the north, and more international police and soldiers elsewhere.

Elsewhere, Serbian officials claimed that heavily armed Kosovo policemen “burst into” premises of a strategic Serb-controlled dam on the artificial Gazivode Lake on the border with Serbia.

The report could not be independently verified. The Serb officials asked urgent EU action to “restrain the thugs” who, they alleged, want to trigger another war with Serbia.

Both Serbia and Kosovo have intensified their war of words in recent days.

Vucic said on Saturday he would formally request permission from the NATO-led KFOR mission in Kosovo to deploy Serbian troops in the northern Kosovo, while conceding the request was unlikely to be granted.

Serbian officials claim a UN resolution that formally ended the country’s bloody crackdown against majority Kosovo Albanian separatists in 1999 allows for some 1,000 Serb troops to return to Kosovo.

NATO bombed Serbia to end the war and push its troops out of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.

The NATO-led peacekeepers who have been deployed in Kosovo since the1998-99 war would have to give a green light for Serb troops to go there, something that’s highly unlikely because it would de-facto mean handing over security of Kosovo’s Serb-populated northern regions to Serbian forces, a move that could dramatically increase tensions in the Balkans.

“We do not want a conflict. We want peace and progress but we shall respond to aggression with all our powers,’ Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti posted on social media.

Kurti told the European Union and the United States that they should “punish” Serbia for orchestrating the violence to “destabilise Kosovo”.

Tension in the north has been high this week ahead of the polls initially planned for December 18.

They have now been postponed to April 23 in an attempt to defuse the situation. The election was due after ethnic Serb representatives resigned their posts in November to protest a decision by Kosovo’s government to ban Serbia-issued vehicle licence plates.

Serb lawmakers, prosecutors and police officers also abandoned local government posts.

Tensions have been high in Kosovo ever since it proclaimed independence from Serbia, despite attempts by the EU and US officials to defuse them.

Serbia, supported by its allies Russia and China, has refused to recognise Kosovo’s statehood.

Both Serbia and Kosovo want to join the EU but Brussels has warned they must resolve their dispute and normalise relations to be eligible for membership in the bloc.